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Sunday, February 1, 2015
Biomedical research is the process of discovery that leads to better health. Each researcher has advanced training in medical research and a specific medical science field. Research scientists are doctors. There are two kinds of doctoral degrees: Some researchers have an MD (Medical Doctor) degree, and others have a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) degree, meaning that they are experts in a particular field. Some biomedical researchers have an MD as well as a PhD degree. Very often experts from different fields work together on the same research team.
Basic science research - Some biomedical researchers do basic science research to:
1) identify the steps that lead to health and disease, and
2) find ways to prevent, treat and cure it.
Most basic science research is done in medical universities by scientists who have a PhD in fields such as genetics, neuroscience, pharmacology, nutrition, epidemiology and biomedical engineering.
Clinical research - Other biomedical researchers do clinical research through studies with people to:
1) test basic science discoveries, and
2) learn about health and disease in real-life situations.
Researchers who do clinical studies often have an MD (medical doctor degree) and specialize in a field such as pediatric cardiology (heart disease in children), orthopedic surgery (muscles and skeletal system), oncology (cancer), and obstetrics/gynecology. Clinical research is also done by researchers with PhDs in fields like nursing, psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
Biomedical researchers are often called investigators. This is a good term to understand what these researchers do. Just like a police detective, a biomedical researcher starts with known facts and then does an investigation to understand what is still unknown. A police investigation into a burglary would involve a careful step-by-step process of talking to witnesses, examining evidence and then, drawing conclusions about how the break-in happened and who might be responsible. A biomedical research investigation is also a step-by-step process. Starting with facts from previous research, the researcher designs a study to get new information and to draw scientific conclusions based on that evidence.
Biomedical research is an ongoing journey with each discovery leading to the next and many fields contributing to each other. Every piece of new information increases our knowledge. Some ideas to think about in that journey include:
Discoveries that improve our health the most take time. Research starts with the foundation of what we know already. Then, through a steady process, basic research findings from several fields (such as genetics, cell biology and pharmacology) join together to reveal new ways to understand, prevent and treat disease. Once these findings are tested in clinical research, they become part of standard health practices and medical care. This step-by-step process continues to build over decades with each new advance paving the way for the next.
Sometimes there are major basic science breakthroughs that open up a whole new path for biomedical research. Major breakthroughs like this are like getting new scientific tools that didn't exist before. Think about an example from real-life. Let's say that you want to put together a bookcase that comes with Phillips head (crosshead) screws. Once you have all the pieces laid out, imagine that all you have in the house is a standard screwdriver. The project would just have to wait until you got the right tool. The path of research is often like that. Science goes so far and then stops until a researcher finds the right scientific tool.
The breakthrough discovery of DNA structure is a good example.
Based on decades of science, the structure of the DNA molecule was discovered and published in 1953. Why was this so important? DNA is our inherited genetic code. That code is a blueprint that directs the activities of every cell in our body. This code defines every trait a person has, including how we look, how our bodies function, and mutations leading to disease. By knowing about the code, scientists could "break the code", giving researchers a revolutionary new way to study, treat and cure disease. In 1962 the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to Francis Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins in recognition of this ground-breaking research. There are thousands of basic and clinical research studies going on right now all around the world that use this information.
Sometimes, the driving force for discovery comes from a new technology that allows scientists to do research they could not do before. Modern examples include things like biomedical computing, which can do in seconds what it used to take a researcher years to do. Another example is low-risk technology like MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) to see details inside the body from the outside. New technology has been part of scientific progress for hundreds of years.
The microscope provides a useful example
Microscopes came into use in the mid-1600s. For the first time ever, research scientists could see, and study, an individual cell. Cells are the building blocks for all living things and for every part of our body. Disease in any part of the body like asthma, skin cancer, or high blood pressure, starts first at the level of our cells. The microscope gave scientists an important key to learn about the causes of disease. Before the microscope, we could see the results of disease, but we could not see how it happened.
By 1676 this technology allowed a Dutch scientist named Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to see individual cells, like red blood cells, for the first time. By 1676 he identified a separate form of life that was only one single cell. No one had any idea that a living thing, one cell in size, could possibly exist. This discovery was so different from anything seen before, that at first other scientists did not believe it.
After a few years his research was proved to be true. Antoini van Leeuwenhoek had discovered bacteria. Researchers could now study how to prevent and treat infections: a major cause of illness and death. This includes how to prevent the spread of germs, vaccinations and every antibiotic. This research has allowed us to address conditions like measles, tooth decay, TB, and pneumonia. Everything that we have learned since about infections began with the microscope. With this new technology, van Leeuwenhoek opened a research path that has improved the health and saved the lives of millions of people.
This article is a NetWellness exclusive.
Last Reviewed: May 15, 2011
Susan Wentz, MD, MS
Director, Area Health Education Center
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University