5 Ways to Make Cancer Pharmacology Approachable to Students

Job Brisby Eloja

Cancer is a disease that affects millions of people worldwide. It is often a frightening disease – when people are diagnosed with cancer, they usually fear for their lives, not knowing how much longer they have. But thanks to advancements in cancer research, there are more opportunities for treatment. 

Cancer pharmacology is concerned with discovering such treatments. This kind of research is also tied to the industry, as drug manufacturers are always looking for new ways to make better cancer medications.

For students looking into careers in biosciences, cancer pharmacology is a good field to get into. But students learning about this topic for the first time might find it intimidating. Thankfully, there are many ways to make it more engaging and approachable. Read on to find out how.

What Makes Cancer Pharmacology a Challenging Topic?

First, let’s look at why students find it challenging to learn cancer pharmacology. Here are the top three reasons experienced by both students and teachers.

1. Cancer is a multifactorial disease

Cancer does not just involve just one organ of the body. Lung cancer, for example, does not just involve the lungs. It can spread to nearby organs as well. 

There are also many causes of cancer. It could be the environment, diet, stress, or inheritance. Sometimes, it’s a combination of all these factors. It’s hard to pinpoint the specific cause of cancer.

2. There are lots of lab techniques involved

Cancer pharmacology involves a lot of methodologies that aim to determine how effective certain drugs are against cancer cells. These include the MTT assay, cell viability tests, cell counting, and dose-response experiments. The sheer number of techniques to familiarize may be overwhelming to many students. 

3. Lab work is prone to errors

The methodologies used in cancer pharmacology are prone to false positives or false negatives. These errors necessitate repeated lengthy experiments, causing project delays and added costs. 

To spot these errors, students must be meticulous in lab work and have an eye for detail. These skills take experience to develop.

Cancer Pharmacology virtual lab 2

Image from Lbaster's Cancer Pharmacology: Provide recommendations in a multi-million dollar project.

5 Ways to Make Cancer Pharmacology a More Approachable Topic

Based on the difficulties students have when studying cancer pharmacology, here are five tips for educators to make the topic more interesting. Each piece of advice addresses a particular challenge that students face. 

1. Talk about its real-life impacts

Statistics show that more than 18 million people worldwide were diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Of those cases, 10 million lost their lives. Cancer pharmacology is a life-saving science branch aiming to prevent these deaths.

Cancer pharmacology research leads to valuable discoveries that can extend the lives of cancer patients. In some cases, patients can even live cancer-free for the rest of their lives. With that, students realize that studying cancer pharmacology has a bigger significance beyond themselves.

2. Introduce the business side of it

Cancer pharmacology has a business side. Manufacturers of cancer medications tend to earn a good deal of money from them. With that, it’s a good idea to introduce students to the bioscience industry. They may be encouraged to pursue careers in bioscience enterprise; some of them may even want to start their own biotech or bioscience businesses.

Just make sure that the students would be doing business primarily to help people suffering from cancer, not merely to make big money. When students have the right motivations, they can create the most innovative and helpful products for cancer patients.

3. Review the basic concepts

Students must first have a good grasp of the fundamentals of cancer, cell culture, and other concepts to understand how cancer pharmacology works. Here are some of the basics that students need for this topic.


Cancer is a term used to describe a group of diseases involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer diseases, cells multiply uncontrollably, thereby creating malignant tumors that spread into other parts of the body.

Benign & malignant tumors

Cancer is not synonymous with tumor. A tumor can be either benign or malignant. 

Benign tumors do not invade other parts of the body. They are localized in a specific organ and usually have a much better prognosis. 

On the other hand, malignant tumors can spread to and invade other organs. They can enter the bloodstream or the lymphatic system and spread to other parts of the body. This process is called metastasis. For example, it is common for breast cancer to metastasize into other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, the lungs, and the brain.

Cell culture

Cell culture is the process of growing cells in a favorable artificial environment. The cells may be removed from animal tissue directly and disaggregated by enzymatic or mechanical means before cultivation, or they may be derived from an already established cell line.

High-throughput screening

High-throughput screenings are often performed in drug discovery to identify effective compounds in vitro against a disease, such as cancer. Millions of chemical reactions can be tested in a short time in an automated way using robotics and control software.

Cell viability

To calculate cell viability of the cell culture, Trypan blue is normally used. This is a stain permeable only to dead cells with compromised membranes. Therefore, cells visualized in blue under the microscope will be assumed as dead; those that appear white are living cells. 

To use Trypan blue, you need to add it to the cell solution (commonly in a 1:2 ratio), count the total number of living cells and the total number of dead cells, and calculate the percentage of living cells with respect to the total number of cells.

Cell counting

Harvested cells can be counted by manual methods using a hemocytometer, or using automated methods like flow cytometry, where counting is faster but still accurate. Normally, a cell viability count is also performed at the same time.

Dose response curve

In pharmacology, a dose-response curve is a graph that visualizes the relationship between the dose of a drug and its response (effect) on an organism after a certain exposure time. The response may be of physical or biochemical nature. Usually, the dose is plotted on the x-axis and the response on the y-axis. Often, a logarithmic scale is used for the x-axis, resulting in a sigmoidal curve. This is helpful in determining the EC50 of a drug.


In a dose-response curve, the EC50 represents a drug's effective concentration (EC) where 50% of its maximum effect is observed. It is also the inflection point of the sigmoidal curve.

4. Explain the lab techniques thoroughly

Students who have not experienced cell culture and pharmacology techniques may find them daunting at first. For this reason, it’s important to make them appreciate the techniques and what they are used for. For example, cell viability assays involve many steps, so students need to understand the rationale behind the processes.

Students will approach actual lab work more confidently when they understand the techniques well. When teaching lab methods, videos and interactive simulations will prove useful. Students can manipulate a virtual lab without fear of breaking any real lab equipment or accidentally hurting themselves.

Simulations like those found in Labster can help students have the necessary skills before starting actual lab work. The image below is from a Labster simulation entitled ​​Cancer Pharmacology: Provide recommendations in a multi-million dollar project.

Cancer Pharmacology virtual lab

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Virtual lab simulations are excellent tools for teaching control of microbial growth. Labster is determined to deliver fully interactive advanced laboratory simulations that make use of gamification elements like storytelling and scoring systems while exposing students to an immersive, realistic, 3D environment.

Check out this simulation called ​​Cancer Pharmacology: Provide recommendations in a multi-million dollar projectat Labster. This virtual lab allows students to perform cell culture, dose-response experiments, and other techniques in a safe, computer-generated environment. With this, students will gain the confidence to eventually perform the procedures on their own in an actual lab. 

Please take a moment to check out Labster’s Virtual Lab called ​​Cancer Pharmacology: Provide recommendations in a multi-million dollar project or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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