13 Cancer Research and Passion Project Ideas for High School Students
By Alex Yang
Graduate student at Southern Methodist University
By Soha Aslam
Principal Nuclear Engineer
8 minute read
Cancer research addresses one of the most devastating and widespread diseases that affects millions of people worldwide. Cancer is a complex group of diseases and ongoing research is essential to better understand its underlying causes, develop innovative treatments, and improve early detection methods. This research not only saves lives by advancing our ability to diagnose and treat cancer more effectively but also improves our knowledge of the fundamental workings of cellular biology, allowing for breakthroughs in fields beyond just cancer research.
Cancer research can be a particularly exciting field if you already have an interest in STEM. Although high school courses like AP Biology may provide an introduction to cancer, you don’t have to wait until college to dive deeper into the topic. A cancer research passion project can be a great way to learn on your own.
Even within the topic of cancer research there are many different directions you can go with your project. For example, you could focus your research on a specific kind of cancer and its nuances. You could also focus on different aspects of cancer research, like investigating what may cause cancer, how to treat cancer, how to detect cancer, and how cancers develop over time. Try to focus on one of these specific areas as opposed to doing a project about cancer as a whole. A more targeted approach will make it easier for you to do research and organize your findings.
1. On top of genetics - epigenetics in cancer
Mutations within a cell are a driving force in cancer; however, it is not the only way a cell could become malignant. In this project, you will explore how epigenetic modifications (ie. DNA methylation or DNA oxidations) can facilitate cancer cell survival. This project could be conducted in multiple ways: a scientific blog, a review article, a brief video, or a podcast.
Idea by cancer research mentor Alejandra
2. Cancer deep dive
Different types of cancer, and even different subtypes, have drastically different outcomes. For example, patients with HPV-mediated cancers are more sensitized to radiation, meaning lower doses of treatment may be equally effective as higher doses but with fewer side effects. In this project, students can pick a specific type of cancer and do a deep-dive on the mutation that causes the cancer, the treatment, and current/future therapies.
Idea by cancer research mentor Kendra
3. How can RNA be used to treat cancer?
One class of new cancer therapies uses RNA molecules to specifically target cancer cells. In this project, you will explore RNA therapies currently in use. After learning about these therapies, you will then come up with a new target or approach for the use of an RNA therapy in treating cancer or another disease of your choice. Your findings can be summarized in a scientific paper or presentation.
Idea by cancer research mentor Rebecca
4. Essentiality of genes in pancreatic cancer
Certain genes are essential for all cancer cells to survive. However, some genes are only essential in certain cell type contexts. To figure out how to kill cancer cells of certain cell types, we can use publicly available data on the Broad Institute's Cancer Cell Line Dependency Map database. This database shows which genes are essential across thousands of cancer cell lines. For example, if you look at pancreatic cancer specifically, you can identify genes that are important for cell survival only in the pancreatic cancer context. Look at other cancers and learn about the genes that are essential for the cancer’s survival and present your findings.
Idea by cancer research mentor Lauren
5. Designing a novel CAR T cell therapy
Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells are immune cells genetically engineered to attack specific proteins implicated in cancer, autoimmune diseases, or viral infections. This project will challenge students to design a CAR T cell therapy for their disease of interest by 1) reviewing literature on antigen(s) specific to their chosen disease; 2) learning basics of T cell biology and genetic engineering; and 3) writing a research proposal to assess the safety and efficacy of their designer T cell therapy.
Idea by cancer research mentor Josh
6. Investigating the role of a particular gene in the development of breast cancer.
Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women, and understanding what causes its development is crucial for developing more effective treatments. In this project, you will investigate the role of a particular gene in the development of breast cancer, using online databases and other sources to collect data on the expression of the selected gene in normal and cancerous breast tissue. This project could involve the following steps: 1. Research the function of the selected gene and its potential role in cancer development. 2. Use online databases and other sources to collect data on the expression of the selected gene in normal and cancerous breast tissue. 3. Use bioinformatics tools to analyze the data and determine if the selected gene is differentially expressed in cancerous tissue. 4. Analyze the data and interpret the results, and write a scientific report summarizing the findings and their implications.
Idea by cancer research mentor Chanelle
Create a research project tailored to your interests and your schedule
Polygence pairs you with an expert mentor in your area of passion. Together, you work to create a high quality research project that is uniquely your own. We also offer options to explore multiple topics, or to showcase your final product!
7. Personalized disease markers
Cancer is a personalized disease - no two patients will have exactly the same cancer. This problem makes cancer difficult to treat and cure. Modern cancer research looks for disease markers specific to certain patients that may make them respond better to certain treatments. In this project, you can choose a cancer type and review the different markers known to inform patient treatment outcomes.
Idea by cancer research mentor Sarah
8. Dormant cancer cells
Cancer cells undergo a process called dormancy to evade immune surveillance, by which cancer cells are not actively undergoing the cell cycle process, allowing them to remain "asleep" within a patient's body. The major problem with dormant cancer cells is that once they "wake up", they spread quickly to other parts of the body and are resistant to treatment. Explore and learn about the concept of dormancy.
Idea by cancer research mentor Alejandra
9. Understanding how cells in the tumor affect tumor growth
When researchers evaluate the cells present in a tumor, there are generally two main classes: cells that help the tumor grow (pro-tumor) and those that try to destroy the tumor (anti-tumor). As we start to learn more about which cell types are present in the tumor, we start to understand how the tumor evades our bodies natural defenses. These insights can also be used to develop new treatment strategies for patients with cancer. Writing a literature review on this topic will provide you with a thorough understanding of many aspects of immunology and gives you the opportunity to publish your research in a journal.
Idea by cancer research mentor Xanne
10. Cancer health disparities
Unfortunately, many studies have shown that race and gender can affect the level of care cancer patients receive which ultimately affects their survival chances. In this project, you can research a specific area of disparity and its effects on cancer patients and the treatment they receive. Next, you can propose a strategy to overcome the disparity using knowledge of cancer medicine and public health policy.
Idea by cancer research mentor Sarah
11. Decreasing risk of getting cancer
While there are many factors predisposing a person to getting cancer, it is important to share the ways we can work to control being exposed to certain risk factors. Students can explore these risk factors to prepare a review article, presentation, or community event to educate the next generation about how limiting factors such as sun exposure, poor diet, alcohol use, and getting genetic testing early if your family has a history of cancer, can decrease your risks of getting certain cancers.
Idea by cancer research mentor Carly
12. Exploring the connections between cancer, organ transplantation and pregnancy
For years, scientists have been trying to solve problems related to organ transplantation and cancer. When a patient receives a much-needed organ from a donor, the immune system can recognize the organ as foreign and attack it. However, when a patient develops cancerous cells, the immune system can fail to recognize that the cells don't belong, allowing the cancer to spread. Yet, during pregnancy, a mother is able to carry a fetus for 9 months even though half of its genetic material is not shared by the mother. Can cancer and pregnancy help us solve some of the challenges related to organ transplantation? Explore this question and share your findings.
Idea by cancer research mentor Amber
13. Exploring nuclear physics and radiation detection for cancer therapy
Last but not least, nuclear physics plays a pivotal role in cancer treatment, with applications like radiology, boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT), and the use of radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment. Here are some project ideas in this realm:
Radiology and Cancer Imaging: Radiology, a branch of medical science that uses ionizing radiation, is a powerful tool for cancer diagnosis. Explore the various imaging techniques like X-rays, CT scans, and MRI that utilize radiation to detect and visualize tumors. Investigate the advancements in radiology technology and how it aids in early cancer detection and treatment planning.
Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT): BNCT is a cutting-edge cancer therapy that involves targeting tumor cells with boron-10-loaded compounds and irradiating them with thermal neutrons. This technique results in the release of high-energy alpha particles, specifically damaging cancer cells while sparing healthy tissue. Delve into the principles of BNCT, its potential applications, and the latest research in this field. Share your insights through a detailed report or a presentation.
Radioisotopes in Cancer Treatment: Radioisotopes are radioactive forms of elements that can be used in various cancer treatments. Investigate how radioisotopes like iodine-131, yttrium-90, and others are employed for targeted cancer therapy, such as radioiodine therapy for thyroid cancer. Explore the mechanisms, benefits, and challenges associated with using radioisotopes in cancer treatment. You can present your findings through a research paper, presentation, or even an educational video or podcasts.
By venturing into nuclear physics and radiation detection for cancer therapy, you can contribute to the understanding and advancement of non-invasive cancer treatments and diagnostics, making a significant impact in the field of oncology.
After you’ve done the hard work of researching cancer, you should also dedicate time towards deciding how you want to showcase your project. There are many unique ways that you can showcase a project. Specifically for cancer research, you could write a research paper or do a literature review, or you could try to execute something more creative like a presentation with graphics or a podcast. The decision is up to you, but be sure that with whatever showcasing method that you choose, make sure that the hard work and effort that you put into your research comes through.
Cancer research is a popular topic for Polygence students, and we wanted to showcase some of the great work that our students have done in the field!
Dnyanada did research into melanoma, a type of skin cancer, and a specific immunotherapy called Nivolumab. Dnyanada found through her research that patients who were treated with Nivolumab had specific gene expressions that could reveal whether the treatment was affecting the patient positively or negatively. Dnyanada then used machine learning models to predict whether certain patients would have a positive or negative response to Nivolumab.
Shravan worked on a project designing a CRISPR-Cas9n genetic therapy for Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer). Shravan was able to present his project at Polygence’s 8th Symposium of Rising Scholars, and also created a series of blog posts, as well as a research paper to submit to journals.
Arif worked on a project modeling Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) using an open source modeling tool called OpenMC. CT relies on the selective accumulation of boron-10 within tumor cells, followed by irradiation with thermal neutrons. Arif's modeling efforts likely encompass the detailed calculations of neutron flux, the behavior of boron-10 under irradiation, and the subsequent release of high-energy alpha particles within the tumor.
In this article, we covered how to pick the right cancer research project for you, shared some project ideas, and discussed best practices for how to showcase your project.
If you’re interested and inspired by cancer research and you’re interested in diving deeper, Polygence’s programs are a great place to start. You’ll be able to meet virtually one-on-one with a biology/cancer research mentor who can help you learn new concepts and brainstorm with you on how to showcase your passion project.
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