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Ideas for cancer research project?


10+ Year Member
Aug 24, 2005
I'm currently a junior in college and will be writing and submitting a proposal for a research project next semester. I would like to do a project investigating potential cures for pancreatic cancer. Since this project will be executed under the restrictions of "undergraduate-approved" parameters, the only system I'll be able to work with is in-vitro cells (i.e., cells-in-a-dish); I realize that this limitation eliminates the opportunity to test novel therapies such as vaccine therapy or immunotherapy.

What are some good ideas for research involving pancreatic cancer? According to the dean of the College of Science, students have previously tested the effects of vitamins, curcumin, etc. on (non-pancreatic) cancer cell viability, but I'd like to do something a bit different. I know that pancreatic cancer is an especially aggressive and swiftly lethal form of cancer, so I'd like to focus my research project on it.

Any suggestions would be appreciated...


Full Member
10+ Year Member
7+ Year Member
Feb 12, 2008
How is this research project of yours being set up? Is this you just brainstorming ideas and submitting a proposal, and that's that, or are you planning on actually trying to carry out your proposal?

If it's the latter, you need to find a mentor. You seem to have some interesting ideas, but unfortunately in biomedicine hypotheses are dirt cheap, and are quickly limited by what's available. A research mentor will not only be able to teach you and help refine your ideas, they will tell you what cancer cell lines they have, what systems they have set up, etc. This is especially important in an undergraduate project where you want someone to guide you intially and you don't want to waste too much time setting up (ie waiting for orders to come in) instead of learning.

What school are you at? Perhaps we can help you find a mentor. Research descriptions for someone new to a field can be overwhelming, so my advice for your first project is to find someone that teaches a course or two (they like teaching), is on the younger side (they have time for teaching, as you move on in your career and need less instruction you can shift to higher profile, older researchers), and pairs you up with a graduate student who you can get along with and seems interested in having you help. However, those are just opinions, and upperclassmen in your school are the best resource.


10+ Year Member
Aug 24, 2005
Thanks for chiming in, JHopRevisit.

Actually, completion of a research project fulfills a requirement for graduating with a Bachelors of Science in Biology at my school. I think I've already found a mentor; sometime before the spring semester begins, I will actually register for a one-credit "course" that entails nothing but completion of a proposal. After the proposal has been approved and submitted (to who, I'm not sure), I will begin the project during the summer or fall. According to my probable mentor, the only systems I can work with are in vitro cells (in dishes, etc.) and mice. He assures me that any form of cancer can be purchased from the "warehouse." From talking to my mentor, it sounds like like most experiments performed by students at my school involving cancer are carried out on in vitro cells.

The whole process is pretty regulated by my university, so I don't really have to worry about getting it approved, obtaining funding, materials, etc.

So I'm essentially free to experiment with any potential treatment for pancreatic cancer, although I was instructed by my mentor to find a solid, open-ended-ish study that I could use as a basis for further work...
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Full Member
15+ Year Member
Jan 5, 2002
  1. Attending Physician
not to piss on your parade, but your question might be slightly too broad for anything particularly productive.

(1) Search PubMed for molecular biology of pancreatic cancer (or cancer in general), read the most 3-5 review papers.

(2) talk to an expert at your school in cancer genetics...usually a research in the field would have working projects for you

(3) keep in mind that any cancer-related project will rapidly deteriorate into determining the third subunit of the second portion of the three dozen "scaffolds" of p53 and some such. There are literally dozens of different systems that are implicated in every stage of cancer pathogenesis, with each of the systems containing dozens of proteins. Most of PhD-level research projects focus on 1 (or a few) of these hundreds of proteins. And this is not even counting the very nascent field of cancer epigenetics (DNA methylation, etc.), siRNA, genomics, glyco-biology, lipo-biology, etc. etc. etc.

for instance, a working project might be "characterize DNA methyl-transferase in pancreatic cancer cells". then you first sequence it, find if its mutated, express the mutated protein, do biochemical assays, then make a K.O. mouse with the mutation and see if it's more prone to cancer, or if they get trafficked differently. In the due process, you figure out that actually the m-TF is hooked up to three different membrane bound receptors and interact with four different signal transduction pathways. Then you throw a library of chemicals on it to see if any of it blocks any of these proteins--then you can talk about "treatment".

As you can see, this kind of projects usually take a few decades, so you'll end up doing a little tiny portion of it.

Talk to people.


Membership Revoked
10+ Year Member
Aug 2, 2007
I hate Pre-Meds!!!
  1. Pre-Medical
with in-vitro cells you can do some basic growth inhibition assays (add vitamins, circumin, etc to dish 1, nothing to dish 2, let em grow a week, and do some type of counting after a week to see if the treatment slowed down growth). you can dig through the literature on these treatments you suggested to see what molecular pathways are involved, and perhaps run some westerns to see if the pathway is affected by the treatment.

recently the targeted agent erlotinib was approved for pancreatic cancer patients (along with previous standard chemo gemcitabine). this drug targets a surface protein called EGFR that prevents it from signaling a series of events that would otherwise eventually lead to cell proliferation. you might try attacking something from that end as there could be some real direct clinical benefit.


Full Member
10+ Year Member
Jun 16, 2005
  1. Resident [Any Field]
I would recommend keeping things as simple as possible. Since you are only an undergrad in what I assume to be a small school, you probably dont have a lot of resources. make sure you find a good mentor that has time and is willing to teach you. That is the main thing.

When you are ready to come up with a project, an "easy" thing to do is test drugs on cancer cells using the clonogenic assay. The reason it is easy is that it wont take any fancy equipment, just a lot of time. You add your treatment to cells for a certain period of time, then you plate them out at a very low density and let them grow for about 2 weeks. Cells that are viable will grow a colony of cells. You then count the colonies and compare the number to untreated controls.

This simple project will probably take you a good year to complete. You will need to do background research and decide which drugs you are going to test. You will need to order cells from the ATCC, grow some up and freeze extras in case you screw something up. You need to learn to culture cells without contaminating them (cells need attention 3x/week at least). You will also have to learn to do the assay and repeat at least 3 times.

Research takes time and a lot of patients. At this point in your education, dont be discouraged if things go wrong or you dont get results. Learn the techniques and learn from your mistakes and it will prepare you for a future in science. Good luck
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