Types of health research

There are three main types of health research: population research, laboratory research and clinical research. People affected by cancer mainly take part in clinical research.

Population and laboratory research are often the starting point for clinical research (see the cycle of health research below).

Learn more about:

Cycle of health research

cycles of health research

Population research (epidemiology)

What is it?

The study of how and why diseases occur in groups of people (populations). Scientists working in this field are called epidemiologists. They look for patterns and trends in illness to work out why certain diseases, such as cancer, occur in some people but not in others.

Their findings often lead to recommendations for ways to reduce or prevent disease. This type of research focuses on groups of people rather than individuals.

Key areas

  • Health services research – investigates the quality, cost and ease of access to services, such as hospitals, specialists and allied health professionals.
  • Medical data research – examines medical records, often from hundreds or thousands of people, to understand what causes cancer and how it might be prevented.
  • Mathematical modelling – uses information from the past to estimate what might happen in the future, e.g. modelling can work out how many people are likely to be diagnosed with cancer in 10 years’ time.

Laboratory research

What is it?

Scientists conduct laboratory experiments with the building blocks of disease to try to understand how a disease works. They study cells, proteins and DNA from humans and animals, or disease-causing agents such as chemicals, bacteria and viruses.

Scientists also study and develop new drugs and treatments in the laboratory. Laboratory research is often the starting point for clinical research.

Key areas

  • Basic research – looks at the body’s cells and molecules to find out how they function. This helps scientists work out why cancer starts or spreads and how it might be prevented or treated more effectively. Basic research helps to show whether a treatment is likely to be safe and effective.
  • Animal research – helps scientists understand how a treatment works, problems it might cause, and whether it might be useful in humans.
  • Stem cell research – looks at how stem cells develop, their role in causing disease and treatment resistance, and their possible use as a treatment.
  • Genomic research – looks at the role of genes in the development of disease, and how a person’s genetic makeup can be used to help prevent, diagnose and treat disease.
  • Pharmacogenetics – studies how genes affect a person’s response to drugs, and why some people respond well to a particular drug and others don’t.

Clinical research

What is it?

Research conducted on people to better understand, diagnose, prevent and treat diseases. It is usually carried out in a clinical setting such as a hospital or outpatient clinic, and it often requires patient participation.

Key areas

  • Human participation studies – require contact with patients and/ or healthy volunteers. Examples include clinical trials and behavioural research using questionnaires.
  • Record-based studies – access personal data without face-to-face contact, e.g. examining patients’ medical records to see if treatment was successful.
  • Laboratory studies – examine human material such as blood or tissue obtained during surgery, from tissue sampling (biopsy), or a post-mortem examination (autopsy). Tissue banking (or biobanking) collects and stores groups of cells (tissue) for use in cancer research.
  • Technology studies – develop new technology for diagnosis and treatment.

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This information was last reviewed in July 2018
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