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).
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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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
This edition has been developed by Cancer Council NSW on behalf of all other state and territory Cancer Councils as part of a National Cancer Information Working Group initiative. We thank the reviewers of this booklet: A/Prof Andrew Redfern, Consultant Medical Oncologist, Fiona Stanley Hospital, Clinical Academic Oncologist, The University of Western Australia, and Lead Clinician, State Breast Cancer Collaborative, WA; Christie Allan, Program Coordinator – Clinical Trials, Cancer Council Victoria; Bronwyn Chalmers, Clinical Trial Coordinator, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute, NSW; Sarah Coulson, Coordinator, Oncology Clinical Trials, Projects and Research, Tasmanian Health Service, TAS; Kate Cox, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Annette Cubitt, Clinical Trials Manager, Department of Medical Oncology, Cancer Care Services, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Pete Currie, Consumer; Amy Ives, Clinical Trials Coordinator, Department of Medical Oncology, Cancer Care Services, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Sabina Jelinek, Clinical Research Nurse, Murdoch Oncology Clinical Trials Unit, WA; Dr Visalini Nair-Shalliker, Research Fellow – Prostate, Cancer Council NSW; Karlie Neilson, Project Officer – Cancer Research Division, Cancer Council NSW; Prof Mark Rosenthal, Medical Oncologist, and Director, Parkville Cancer Clinical Trials Unit, VIC; Joan Torony, CEO, TROG Cancer Research, NSW; Rebecca Weselman, Senior Clinical Trials Coordinator, Oncology Clinical Trials, St John of God Murdoch Hospital, WA; John Williams, Research Governance Officer, Cancer Council NSW.
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