Frontiers: Intro to Cancer Unit

Explore cell growth/development, cancer, and cancer treatments through the story of Hina Marsey who is diagnosed with leukemia. This whole unit has opportunities for collaborative model building, discussions about health inequities in cancer, and evidence based argumentation.
Close up of red blood cells
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This is a cancer unit, intended for high school biology classes, focused on cell growth, cell cycle, and mutations. Over eleven lessons, students investigate the case of Hina Marsey, an eleven-year old girl, who is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia. As the unit unfolds, students develop conceptual models on cell growth, cancer, and treatments for leukemia. The unit builds toward a wet lab in which students conduct an ELISA (enzyme linked immunosorbent assay) to find a final match.

The unit is organized into two conceptual bends: Part 1: How is Hina's illness affecting her body? unfolds over six lessons that are focused on understanding Hina’s story and how her doctors are able to diagnose her blood cancer. Students develop an understanding of cell growth, the cell cycle, and differentiation of blood cells. In the five lessons that make up
Part 2: How can Hina’s cancer be cured?, students are introduced to different forms of cancer treatments, before diving deeper into how chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants (including the process of matching donors with recipients) help patients, like Hina, who have leukemia. Students also conduct a gel electrophoresis lab focused on Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) typing.

Science Education Partnership Award Logo

This project was made possible by a Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA), Grant Number R25 GM129842, from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the NIGMS or NIH.

NIGMS, part of the National Institutes of Health, supports basic research that increases the understanding of biological processes and lays the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Its Science Education Partnership Award program funds innovative pre-kindergarten to grade 12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and informal science education projects.


10 Lesson plans

Step 1: Complete Short Survey

Complete the short survey to support our grant-funded lessons.


Step 2: Review Unit and Teacher Prep Materials

Unit Materials

Unit Overview

An overview of the unit with lesson summaries, unit calendar/timeline, and more information for the teacher before teaching this unit. 

Unit Materials

Unit Preface

Information on our approach to science teaching & learning, background reading on race and racism for teachers, and credits & acknowledgments. 


Step 3: Download Lessons

Part 1: How is Hina's illness affecting her body?

Lesson 1

Intro to Hina's Story

To launch the unit, students collect ideas and experiences that they have around cancer, and are introduced to Hina’s story. To track progress and record questions, students create an initial conceptual model and fill out an incremental model tracking worksheet.

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Lesson 2

Cancer in the Blood

Students examine blood charts and microscope slide images of leukemic and normal blood to predict which images are cancerous or not.

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Lesson 3

Division and Cell Cycle

Students explore what this means by learning how cells normally divide. In groups, students practice developing theories to explain what processes must occur to create two cells with the same DNA.

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Lesson 4

Cell Differentiation

Students continue to learn about cell development in order to answer “What is uncontrolled cell growth?”. They explore how cells divide and differentiate as humans and all complex organisms grow and then connect this understanding to growth and development of blood cells in the bone marrow.

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Lesson 5

Cell Cycle Game

In this lesson, students use their knowledge about cell cycle, cell differentiation, and cancer to further develop their conceptual model of how Hina’s leukemia is affecting her body.


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Part 2: How can Hina's cancer be cured?

Lesson 6

Cancer Treatment & Patient Stories

Students explore different patient stories from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance to learn more about cancer treatments to better understand Hina’s treatments. 

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Lesson 7

Hina's Treatment

Students expand on their knowledge about chemotherapy and learn more about bone marrow transplants (BMT), graft vs. host disease, and the history of BMT development by E. Donnell Thomas.

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Lesson 8

Disparities in Leukemia

Students learn about HLA and what it means to find a bone marrow transplant match. This lesson includes a wet lab activity in which students use gel electrophoresis to simulate the process of isolating DNA fragments for analysing HLA genes. 

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Lesson 9

Final Model for Leukemia Treatment

Students build on their previous models to show how Hina’s leukemia treatment is affecting her body and replacing her cancerous cells with new donor cells. 

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Lesson 10


Students create luminaria to honor those who are struggling with cancer or have struggled with cancer in the past. This is an opportunity to bring emotional closure to the unit. Based on a lesson shared by Megan Clauss, Cleveland HS, Seattle, WA.


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