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In Search of a Cure for Breast Cancer


Jolanta Skalska


In this directed case study, students analyze data, draw a research-based conclusion, interpret experimental results, and discuss the relevance of research findings for clinical practice. Specifically, students examine the effects of chemotherapeutic drugs on newly generated cell lines and explain research outcomes using their prior knowledge of signal transduction pathways (G-protein coupled receptors), hormones, glycolysis, oxidative phosphorylation, and DNA structure and function as they follow the story of "Emily," an undergraduate student who is accepted into an internship program focusing on the breast cancer cell line MCF-7. Emily learns that MCF-7 cells can survive the treatment of tamoxifen and a hormone deprivation regimen, which leads to the generation of new cell lines (Tam3 and TamR3) that do not activate the mTOR signaling pathway. Emily attempts to predict how the Tam3 and TamR3 cells will respond to the mTOR inhibitor rapamycin, and then incorporates drugs used for chemotherapy into her experiments. Originally written for upper-level undergraduate biology majors, the case study is also appropriate for courses focusing on cell biology, pharmacology, and cancer biology.


  • List the functions of the steroid hormones, classify receptors, and summarize the mechanism of action and effects of chemotherapeutic drugs.
  • Interpret experimental data and explain the outcomes of experiments described in the case study.
  • Determine the differences between cell lines based on data, present signaling transduction pathways, and predict research outcomes.
  • Explain the phenotypical differences between three cell lines, debate experimental outcomes and present them in the form of a written discussion.


Breast cancer; camptothecin; competitive inhibitor; cisplatin; doxorubicin; fluorouracil; G-protein coupled receptors; MCF-7; ER+; PR+; membrane receptors; mTOR; signaling pathway; oxidative phosphorylation; reactive oxygen species; tamoxifen

Topical Areas


Educational Level

Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Directed, Discussion



Subject Headings

Biochemistry  |   Cell Biology  |   Molecular Biology  |   Pharmacy / Pharmacology  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Supplemental Materials

The optional PowerPoint presentation below can be used to pace students as they work through the case study in class.

  breast_cancer_direct.pptx (~100 KB)

Answer Key

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