What is an Oncology and Cancer Biology Degree?

The mission of oncology and cancer biology programs – also called cancer research programs – is to train the next generation of oncologists and cancer biologists to make significant contributions to research in cancer prevention and diagnosis, cancer epidemiology, discovery of new therapies, and cancer treatment. Degree programs in the field span many disciplines, including molecular and cell biology, genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, bioinformatics, and immunology.

Program Options

Master’s Degree in Oncology and Cancer Biology – Two Year Duration
Master’s programs in oncology and cancer biology are quite rare. Schools that do offer them typically allow students to choose a terminal degree or to apply credit toward a doctoral degree in the field.

To be admitted into a master’s program in oncology and cancer biology, students must hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology or relevant life sciences discipline. The master’s curriculum provides training that develops a broad understanding of fundamental bases and developing areas in the field of cancer. It begins with cell and molecular biology of cancer and proceeds to clinical research, leading to new techniques and tools in cancer treatment and improved health outcomes.

At the heart of oncology and cancer biology master’s programs are research internships in laboratories. These experiences give students access to state-of-the art technological tools and allow them to interact with and be mentored by expert cancer biology scientists.

Topics covered include:

  • The basic molecular and cellular mechanisms driving oncogenesis (the process through which healthy cells become transformed into cancer cells)
  • The complex interacting cellular and molecular networks with the tumor microenvironment dictating cancer development and metastasis (the ability of cancer cells to spread from the site of the primary tumor to target organs)
  • The clinical aspects of cancer pathology and therapeutic possibilities
  • The development of critical analysis and creative skills required to formulate research proposals
  • Assessing and processing experimental data
  • Scientific literature searches

The following are sample courses offered in a master’s program in oncology and cancer biology:

  • Cancer Cell Biology
  • Bioinformatics and Omics (analysis of large amounts of data representing an entire set of some kind, especially the entire set of molecules, such as proteins, lipids, or metabolites in a cell, organ, or organism)
  • Imaging and Molecular Histology (the study of the microscopic structure of tissues)
  • Experimental Design in Biomedical Sciences
  • Molecular and Cell Biology Techniques
  • Cancer Immunobiology and Immunotherapies
  • High-throughput Sequencing and Bioinformatics (high-throughput sequencing, also known as next-generation sequencing or NGS, describes technologies that sequence DNA and RNA in a rapid and cost-effective manner)
  • Research Internship I
  • Molecular Basis of Pathologies
  • Microenvironment and Tumor Heterogeneity
  • Modeling and Therapeutic Innovation in Cancer
  • Communication and Project Conception
  • Concepts and Causality in Cancer
  • Pharmaceutical Sciences
  • Research Internship II

Doctoral Degree in Oncology and Cancer Biology – Five to Six Year Duration
Supervised research is the major focus of the Doctoral Degree in Oncology and Cancer Biology. The program does, however, require completion of some compulsory courses such as:

  • Fundamentals of Biomedical Science
  • Essentials of Graduate Research and Professional Development
  • Laboratory Rotations
  • Fundamentals of Cancer Biology
  • Responsible Conduct of Biomedical Research

Electives at the doctoral level may include:

  • Tumor Biology
  • Cancer Biology and Therapeutics
  • Epigenetics in Human Disease and Development
  • Advanced Gene Regulation
  • Apoptosis (a form of programmed cell death or ’cell suicide’ that occurs in multicellular organisms)
  • Advanced Stem Cell Biology
  • Recent Advances in Cancer Metastasis
  • Advanced Applications of Bioinformatics
  • Design and Conduct of Clinical Trials
  • Special Topics in Biomedical Sciences – Immunology and Cancer
  • Cancer Grant Writing

Coursework at the doctoral level is generally completed in the first year of the program, after which candidates spend their time conducting research under the supervision of a faculty member / research mentor.

Among possible areas of research are:

  • Cancer genetics
  • Molecular and cell biology
  • Cell signaling (cell to cell communication)
  • Pharmacology / toxicology
  • Cancer immunology (the role of the immune system in the development and progression of cancer)
  • Tumor microenvironment (the environment around a tumor)
  • Metastasis
  • Stem cells
  • Gene therapy (an experimental technique that uses genes, instead of drugs, to treat or prevent diseases)
  • Therapy resistance (resistance to treatments such as chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and targeted therapies)
  • Molecular targeting (a type of treatment that uses drugs or other substances to target specific molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells)
  • Drug development
  • Radiation biology (the study of the sequence of biological events that take place after exposure to radiation)
  • Cancer diagnostics
  • Epidemiology

Degrees Similar to Oncology and Cancer Biology

The focus of biochemistry is the chemical processes and reactions that occur in living matter. Biochemists apply principles of both biology and chemistry to issues in many different sectors, including the environment, medicine and health, industry and manufacturing, agriculture, biofuels, and marine science.

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

Biomedical Engineering
Simply stated, biomedical engineering uses engineering to solve health and medical problems. For example, a biomedical engineer might look for chemical signals in the body that warn of a particular disease or condition.

Biophysics applies the theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems like the brain, the circulatory system, and the immune system function. Coursework includes math, chemistry, physics, engineering, pharmacology, and materials science.

Cellular Biology
Cellular biology is a branch of biology focused on the study of cell structure and function, on how cells form and divide, and how they differentiate and specialize.

Epidemiology, a fundamental science of public health, is concerned with health and disease at the population level; that is to say, within groups or communities. Its focus is the frequency, pattern, causes, and risk factors of diseases and other health-related events within these specified populations, which range from neighborhoods and schools to cities, states, countries, and the world at large.

Epidemiologists – often referred to as disease detectives – are the scientists and investigators whose work begins with looking for clues by asking questions. Who is sick? What are their symptoms? When did they get sick? Where could they have been exposed? Using statistical analysis, epidemiologists study answers to these questions and produce data that lead them to identify how a particular health problem was introduced, how its spread can be controlled, and how it can be prevented.

Genetics is the study of heredity. It attempts to answer questions about how inherited traits are transmitted from parents to offspring.

Microbiology is the study of all living organisms that are too small to see with the naked eye. These ‘microbes’ include bacteria, archaea, viruses, fungi, prions, protozoa, and algae.

Molecular Biology
Degree programs in molecular biology teach the composition, structure, and interactions of cellular molecules like nucleic acids and proteins that are essential to cell function.

Pathology is the science of the causes and effects of diseases. Pathologists are the medical doctors who analyze organs, tissues, blood, and body fluids to search for medical conditions and diagnose disease and illness. In other words, their job is to solve often complex medical mysteries.

Pathologists typically do not have direct contact with patients, but they work closely with primary care physicians and other medical specialists. This unique position in medical practice has earned them the moniker of the ‘doctor’s doctor.’

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees.

A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

We are all exposed to chemicals. Many of them benefit society. Some, however, may threaten our health. Pesticides in the food we eat, pollutants in the air we breathe, chemicals in the water we drink, adverse effects of drugs used to treat disease – these are the subjects of toxicology. These are the concerns of toxicologists, who seek to understand the effects of exposure to harmful substances, to improve the health and safety of humans and other living organisms, and to protect the environment in which we live.

Toxicology connects knowledge from biology, chemistry, medicine, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, public health, and environmental science.

Skills You’ll Learn

  • Attention to detail
  • Awareness of ethical issues
  • Communication and teamwork
  • Computer literacy
  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Experiment design and troubleshooting
  • Practical lab skills
  • Report writing and documentation
  • Research and data analysis and interpretation
  • Safety consciousness
  • Use of statistical tests in data analysis

What Can You Do with an Oncology and Cancer Biology Degree?

The majority of oncology and cancer biology graduates pursue careers in teaching and research in academia, government, and industry. Their places of employment include:

  • Universities
  • Research institutes and laboratories
  • Clinical analysis laboratories
  • Biotechnology companies, in product development for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer
  • Pharmaceutical companies
  • Healthcare systems / hospitals and clinics

Common titles held by professionals in the field include:

  • Cancer Researcher
  • Medical Scientist
  • Biological Scientist
  • Pharmaceutical Scientist
  • Biological Science Professor

A degree in oncology and cancer biology is also a solid foundation for entry to medical school and a career as a medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, or radiation oncologist. A medical oncologist diagnoses and treats cancer using chemotherapy or other medications, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy. A surgical oncologist removes the cancerous tumor and nearby tissue during surgery and may also perform certain types of biopsies to help with cancer diagnosis. A radiation oncologist treats cancer using radiation therapy.


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