BIOSCI356

DEVELOPMENTAL BIOLOGY AND CANCER

Course Breakdown

 

Mid-Semester Test: 20%
Laboratory Component: 15% (pre-lab quiz + two lab assignments) 

Reading assignment (Perusall): 10% 
Lab Performance: 5%
Exam: 50%

Course Information

 

Recommended textbooks:
Developmental Biology - Gilbert
Principles of Development - Davis & Tickle
The Basic Science of Oncology - Tannock & Hill
The Biology of Cancer - Weinberg
Official UoA Website: link.

Basic Information

BIOSCI 356 was a highly enjoyable, interesting and well-taught course which was, however, heavy in content and could quickly leave you behind if you did not keep up with the lectures. Quite a content heavy paper in my opinion, with lots of pathways to memorize and such. However, would recommend to any student interested in cancer research since the whole second half of the paper (and hence the final exam) is cancer based.

It is split into two broad parts, with lectures in part 1 addressing the main mechanisms driving developmental processes and exploring how the body is constructed using model organisms. You will also be taught about the later phases of development demonstrated in the study of regeneration, growth and aging. The lecture material taught during the developmental lectures were only assessed in the mid-semester test which were a mix of multiple choice and written answer questions. Be sure to ask the course coordinator, Dr. Hilary Sheppard, which relevant labs, if any, will be assessed also.

Part 2 featured three modules, and discussed the fundamental mechanisms that cancer cells exploited to increase their growth and invasive characteristics. The molecular biology of certain cancers, such as cervical and melanoma cancers, and the involvement of the immune system, "cancer stem-cells" and cancer metastasis were also introduced. The content taught in these three modules were assessed in the end of semester exam which contained both multiple choice and written answer questions, plus all the laboratory content from the entire semester. 

In 2021, four new reading assignments were assigned with each being worth 2.5% each toward the final grade. Each reading was prescribed by the main lecturer of the four modules of this course and was completed on Perusall, where you had to read through review papers and collaboratively annotate the readings with your classmates. To get the full 2.5% marks, you had to make 7 annotations, consisting of comments on what you thought was interesting about that specific passage or any questions that you have. You also had to comment on other classmates’ annotations and upvote them. The four readings are an easy way of getting 10% for your final grade and it’s recommended that you start them early, so you can have a chance to annotate and have other students reply/upvote your comments before the rest of the class take over.

Laboratory Component

There were six laboratories in BIOSCI356, and five of them were developmental-biology based. There was no end-of-lab hand in sheet for any of the labs, but in 2021 for the developmental laboratories you were expected to hand in a question sheet posted after both streams had completed labs 1 and 5/6. The contents of the first worksheet covered materials introduced in labs 1-3 while the second worksheet examined your knowledge of work done in labs 5 and 6. These questions can be confusing and take quite a long time to do, but if you pay attention to your demonstrators during the lab, complete the relevant questions in your lab manual (which were very similar to those in the actual assignment sheet) and ask lots of questions then you will have a much easier time. You also gain marks for participation in the labs, so always be active, be engaged and be proactive in your learning. The material in these labs were a great reinforcement of what was being taught in the lectures and we also got to see embryo development in real-time which was very cool to say the least.

 

​The only 'cancer-based' laboratory session (Lab 4) was held at the AMRF Medical Sciences Learning Centre at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, Grafton Campus. If you've never been to Grafton Campus before, detailed instructions were provided in the lab manual on where it is and Dr. Dean Singleton who led this lab session also told us different routes of how to get there from City Campus. This was a very sobering and eye-opening lab where you got to explore and see for yourself preserved specimens from real patients who were suffering from different forms of cancer. There was no post-lab assignment for this lab, but be wary that the content you learn is still examinable in the end of semester exam.
 

Lecture Content

Mechanisms of Development

Your course co-ordinator for BIOSCI 356, Dr. Hilary Sheppard, kicked off the course with her block of 10 lectures and a review, in which she taught us the following content:

  • Introduction/Germ cells and Fertilisation

  • Basic Concepts of Development

  • Early Development: Cleavage and gastrulation

  • The magnificent nematode

  • Xenopus - the frog

  • Drosophila development (fruit fly) parts I-III 

  • Stem cells 

  • Senescence

 

Her lectures were content heavy - a common theme in BIOSCI 356 as you will soon come to realise - and can also at times be conceptually difficult to understand, but in the end it is all just about one process leading to another and another. Like the other lecturers in this course her slides provide excellent notes for you to study from, but personally I found her explanations to be super helpful in understanding key mechanisms so do make sure you attend her lectures as she also provided hand-outs at the beginning for you to write on. 

 

After her series of lectures finished, Dr. Jonathan Astin took over for two lectures on zebrafish development and vascular development. In 2021 these lectures did contribute questions in the MCQ and short-answer components of the incourse test, alongside Dr. Sheppard’s content. I highly advise you to - if you haven't already - to set yourself an efficient study routine early and stick to it as the cancer lectures following will not be any easier either.

 

Cellular Changes in Cancer

In 2021, this module was taught by Dr. Dean Singleton (previously taught by Dr. Graeme Finlay) who gave the first series of lectures based on cancer, and in 2021 he taught us about the following topics:

  • Disruption of Tissue Development

  • Disruption of Regulatory Genes

  • Disruption of Communication

  • Disruption of Signal Transduction

  • Disruption of Cell Cycle Control

  • Disruption of Genome Integrity 

  • Disruption of Cell Death Control

  • Expanding Categories of Cancer Genes 

  • Disruption of Angiogenic Balance

 

This is the most content heavy cancer module of the three, with lots of molecule names and signalling pathways to memorise. However, Dr. Singleton’s lecture slides contain everything that you need to know in the perfect amount of detail, so please do make sure you bring them along to annotate during his lectures. He is also a very friendly lecturer who provides students with in-depth answers both in-person and on Piazza :)

 

Cancer Biology

Professor Rod Dunbar who would have first introduced and enlightened many of you to the world of cancer biology in BIOSCI201 was back after Dr. Singleton’s lectures, giving five lectures and a tutorial. In 2021, they were based on the following concepts:

  • Integrated cancer biology

  • Melanoma

  • Cervical cancer

  • Colorectal cancer

  • Immunity and Cancer

 

Both his lecture slides and his course guide notes contain a very comprehensive set of notes, but pay attention during his lectures as he may tell where you should focus your learning on. Like in BIOSCI201 his lectures are very interesting but he does cover quite a bit of content very quickly, so he can run over time and not have enough time to answer your questions at the end of his lectures. But he is responsive on Piazza and will provide you with in-depth answers to any questions that you have on his lectures, as they are his areas of research. Also note that unlike the other two cancer modules, he does not provide a review on his lecture content, so get your questions in early via Piazza if you have any burning questions that need to be answered.

 

Cancer Metastasis

Dr. Kate Angel finished off BIOSCI 356 with four lectures and a review on cancer metastasis, covering the following content in 2021:

  • The Invasion - Metastasis cascade

  • Colonisation and the epithelial - mesenchymal - transition (EMT)

  • Factors that regulate an EMT and proteases

  • Locomotion, dispersal and seeding of cancer cells

 

As you would have come to expect by now her lecture slides contain a very comprehensive set of notes which are excellent to study from, and she also explains her concepts and material very clearly and thoroughly. As her material only spans four lectures, I found doing past exam papers to be excellent preparation for her exam questions. Her review lecture was very helpful as she reviewed past content, went over past exam MCQs and gave out tips and tricks on how to write a high quality essay in order to score top marks in the exam.