Frontiers: Immunotherapy Unit

Learn about the cell cycle, cell growth, the immune system, and genetic mutations through the story of Kristin K., a woman who was diagnosed with a treatment-resistant form of leukemia.
Image of T Cell attacking another cell
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This curriculum unit is designed to span approximately three weeks when enacted in Advanced/Honors Biology or Biotechnology courses. This unit focuses on the topic of cancer, leukemia, and immunotherapies as a way to explore concepts such as the cell cycle, cell growth, the immune system, and genetic mutations. Over the seven lessons, students are introduced to a case study featuring Kristin K., a woman diagnosed with a treatment-resistant form of leukemia and for whom a stem cell donor match could not be found. [This case study is based on a real person]. The case study explains how Kristin and her doctors at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center harnessed the power of her own immune system to treat her cancer. As the unit unfolds, students develop and revise a conceptual model on the immune system, cancer, and cancer treatments. Students discover that after chemotherapy fails, Kristin decides to enroll in a clinical trial using CAR T-cell therapy and CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. The unit builds toward a wet lab in which students conduct gel electrophoresis focused on in vitro CRISPR Cas-9 on MHC genes in order to identify “self” from “foreign” to reduce the possibility of transplant rejection.

Through lab activities, classroom discussions, and research case studies, students experience “productive uncertainty” in science. The prohibitive cost of the therapy and potential uses of CRISPR introduce students to important bioethical, health inequities, and social justice issues. Additional NGSS-aligned nature of science concepts are explored as students learn about the clinical trial process for approval of novel drugs and therapies.

This unit integrates with SEP teaching kits, particularly DNA Lab 2 and CRISPR (in development), both of which enable the exploration of genetic engineering techniques. 

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.


7 Lesson plans

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Step 2: Download Unit Overview Materials

Step 3: Download Lessons

Introduction | Initial Model

Students read about a real cancer patient, Kristin K., who was treated at Fred Hutch, for whom an experimental cancer treatment was used. Students create an initial model demonstrating what happened in Kristin’s body when she has cancer and during her successful CAR T-Cell therapy.

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Intro to Immunology

Students learn how the immune system and cancer interact by planning and performing a skit. Students then match immunology and leukemia terms with the correct definition, discuss their choices with a partner or group.

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What is Leukemia?

Students work cooperatively to learn how mutations to genes in the cell cycle contribute to the development of cancer and the specific cell types affected in leukemia. Students then explore data related to risk factors to leukemia which exposes them to the concept of “productive uncertainty” in science. 

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Leukemia Treatments

Students explore typical treatment options for leukemia through an interactive Google site. Students begin to understand basic principles and limitations of these standard treatments and guide them towards identifying how these treatments might be altered to address their limitations. 

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Clinical Trials & Cancer

Students explore considerations that need to be made when deciding to join a clinical trial, like those Kristin K. faced, and the challenges of deciding whether an experimental treatment should be made available to patients. 

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CAR T-Cells

Students create simple scientific models to show how CAR T-Cells are made in the lab, how they work in the body, and some of the problems that researchers are actively seeking solutions for. Students review the skit from Lesson 2 and add CAR T-Cells to the skit before completing the final conceptual model. 

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Students are introduced to CRISPR Cas9 as a powerful tool for genetic engineering. Students perform a CRISPR lab and learn why the choice of guide RNA is important in the creation of universal CAR-T cells. 

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