Laboratory research

Scientists carry out research in laboratories using the latest equipment. There are different types of laboratory research. They provide the basis for clinical research.

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Basic research

Basic research looks at the body’s basic building blocks – its 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 is sometimes called test tube research because of the equipment used in the laboratory. The main focus of basic research in cancer includes investigating:

  • the role of molecules, such as enzymes or hormones, in starting or stopping cancer
  • the role of genes in cancer
  • new drugs and treatments.

Before treatments are trialled in humans, basic researchers need to show that they are likely to be safe, effective and not likely to cause life-threatening side effects. At first they test new drugs in cells in the laboratory. The cells are from samples of living tissue (a cell culture).

If the treatment has the desired outcome in the cell culture, it will be tested on animals. This gives scientists more understanding of how the treatment works, problems it might cause, and whether it might be useful in humans.

Animal research

Before drugs are approved for use by people, they are tested on animals. Mice are commonly used because they have similar genes to humans, breed quickly, have a relatively short life span and are easy to look after.

Some people ask whether it is fair to test medicines on animals. There are regulations to ensure that animal testing is only carried out if there’s no alternative and that it is done in the kindest and most humane way. For more information, see

‘In vitro’ (meaning ‘in glass’), refers to experiments conducted in laboratory equipment such as test tubes and dishes. This is different to an ‘in vivo’ experiment, which means ‘in a living thing’ and refers to experiments involving humans or animals.

Stem cell research

Stem cells are the first cells that are formed when a person develops. Initially they appear the same, but they divide and change to become many different cell types. These eventually form the many tissues and organs in the body.

Because stem cells can potentially change into any kind of cell, researchers are investigating them in the laboratory for their possible use in cancer therapies. To find out more, see


Pharmacogenetics is the study of how genes affect a person’s response to drugs. It is sometimes called pharmacogenomics.

This new branch of research combines pharmacology (the study of drugs) and genetics (the study of characteristics passed down from biological parents). It investigates why some people respond well to a particular drug and others do not. It also considers why some people get side effects or have serious reactions to drugs, yet others are not affected.

Pharmacogenetics may eventually help doctors to select specific treatments for individual patients based on their genes. This will also help improve drug safety as more will be known about how and why certain medications affect different people.

Tissue banking

Tissue banking (or biobanking) involves collecting and storing groups of cells (tissue) removed during a medical procedure such as an operation, biopsy or blood test. Tissue can be from different parts of the body, for example, bone marrow, organs such as the liver, or blood. A tissue sample taken for research is also called a biospecimen.

Researchers use tissue banking to study cells, cancers and treatments in the laboratory. Researchers must seek permission from a human research ethics committee before using human tissue.

The person will be asked to consent to donating their tissue sample. If you agree to donate tissue, samples are collected at different stages of care:

  • Collected specifically for the tissue bank – For example, you may need an appointment for vials of blood to be taken.
  • During a test or treatment – For example, you may be booked in for a blood test, and an extra tube of blood will be taken for the tissue bank, or you may be asked to consent before scheduled surgery for tissue to be kept.

This information was last reviewed in May 2015
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