MIT Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Chemotherapy Resistance: The Fault in Our Cells

Rachel Leeson
Outreach Assistant
The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT
Cambridge MA

Simona Dalin
Ph.D. candidate in the MIT Department of Biology
The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT
Cambridge, MA

Emma Sedivy
Ph.D. candidate in the MIT Department of Biology
The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT
Cambridge, MA

Cells in tumors mutate very quickly as they grow and divide, creating a tumor with multiple populations of different cells. In this 50-minute lesson students will learn how these mutations can result in tumor heterogeneity and make tumors more sensitive or resistant to chemotherapy treatment. Students participating should have a basic understanding of cellular division (mitosis) and DNA structure and replication. Using this knowledge, students will run a tumor growth and treatment simulation to model how a tumor’s heterogeneous composition can change the efficacy of chemotherapy treatment. We’ve included an optional statistics segment where students can apply basic statistical techniques to analyze data generated in the experiment.  Students participating in this optional activity should have an understanding of basic statistics. In order to complete this lesson, you’ll need paper bags, beads/beans/similar materials of five different colors, cups, and one timer. For each group of three students, you will need 1 paper bag, 6 cups (or other bead-holding vessels), and 25 beads of each color. 

Rachel Leeson splits her time between doing outreach with the Koch Institute and doing research in a chemical engineering lab looking at the metastatic cancer genome. In her free time, she likes to hike, do photography, and spend as much time outside as possible.

Simona Dalin is a graduate student in Dr. Michael Hemann's lab in the Biology department at MIT. She studies the evolutionary paths cancer cells use to become resistant and researches ways to block those paths. In her free time she enjoys juggling, reading scifi/fantasy, sewing and gardening. Her website is at

Emma Sedivy is a graduate student in Dr. Jacqueline Lees’ lab at MIT. She is studying a protein complex that regulates the development of stem cells into bone, and how disruption of this process may make bone cancers more malignant. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, watching The X Files, reading comics, and taking pictures of other people’s pets. She believes that Harry Potter houses are the personality test of our generation, and strongly identifies as a Hufflepuff. She tweets occasionally @NonstopEmma. 

This site, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, provides a comprehensive introduction to and overview of cancer.

This resource is provided by Cancer Research UK and presents a valuable overview of cancer risk statistics.

This resource, hosted by Science Based Medicine: Exploring Issues and Controversies in Science and Medicine, is a long article on the very theme of this BLOSSOMS lesson – “Why haven’t We Cured Cancer Yet?”

This site, based on the film, Cancer: The Emperor of all Maladies, has a section entitled “Classroom” that provides resources for educational use.

This is the site of the Koch Institute’s Public Galleries that strive to engage diverse public audiences in the fascinating, complex, visual, personal, and important work being done at the cutting edge of cancer research.

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This Lesson is in the following clusters: DNA, Health