There are myriad fields and subfields of biological and medical research, but when scientists categorize these by broader goals rather than subject matter, there are three main categories: basic, clinical and translational. If you’re not a scientist, you may wonder what all of this means. Read on for an explanation.
Don’t let the name fool you; basic research is anything but. Sometimes called “pure” or “fundamental,” the goal of basic research is to broaden our understanding of how the world works. Discoveries from basic research build the foundations of science and our awareness of what is possible. For example, immune system signal proteins called “cytokines” are used to treat some cancers—but they weren’t discovered by cancer research. A researcher trying to understand the immune system discovered cytokines, and that discovery expanded cancer researchers’ awareness of potential treatment tools.
Physiologists conducting basic research study things like what happens in animals’ bodies when they hibernate, how our bodies maintain homeostasis under different conditions or how a Burmese python digests its food.
Better understanding of these questions could go on to help humans in many ways. Some ways we can anticipate, such as scientists using hibernation research to potentially help people confined to bed rest. But other improvements in human life we can’t even imagine yet—not until we discover new scientific answers.
In contrast, the goal of clinical research is to find solutions that can improve our health. Often, this is a new drug or device, but it could also be a particular exercise, lifestyle change or method for diagnosing disease. Clinical researchers take interventions that show scientific promise and rigorously test them to make sure they are safe and effective in people (or animals, in the case of clinical veterinary research).
Physiologists conducting clinical research might be trying a new treatment for sickle cell disease, seeing if a known diabetes drug could extend human life span or testing a mix of vitamins to help people with heart failure.
So, how do we get from the discoveries of basic research to the results of clinical research? The answer is translational research. Translational research takes the findings of basic research and translates them into potential interventions for clinical researchers to test. One recent example of this translation is the 2019 approval of Trikafta to treat cystic fibrosis, a degenerative disease that impairs breathing.
In 1989, geneticists conducting basic research identified the gene that causes cystic fibrosis. Basic researchers studied what that gene did and discovered a particular protein that would make a good candidate for treatment. Once the research shifted to identifying how to fix the broken protein, it became translational research. After this research identified drugs that could fix the protein in pre-clinical research trials, the treatment progressed to clinical research.
It is the combination of all three types of research that leads to the medical advancements we rely on for a healthier life. At the American Physiological Society, we are grateful to our members working at every stage for their role in improving our world.