To understand how to treat and control cancer, researchers start by studying the basics – the cells, molecules and genes that are the building blocks of life.
First, researchers work to understand how healthy cells grow. Then, they look for differences in cancer cells.
This type of laboratory research, which is sometimes called basic research, aims to understand how cancer starts, grows and spreads. This knowledge is an essential starting point for developing future tests and treatments.
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Studying individual cells or tissues, rather than whole organisms, allows researchers to control and test many different factors. They can turn specific genes off or on, or expose cells to a certain substance, condition or possible treatment, and measure the effects.
This type of basic research can use cells taken from healthy volunteers, people with cancer or animals such as mice, or even use cells grown in the lab.
After finding a promising idea that works in cells, laboratory researchers need to take that idea to the next level. But it's not safe or practical to move directly from cells to people. Instead, researchers use animal models that have certain similarities to humans. These similarities allow researchers to carry out, and repeat, important experiments that would be practically or ethically impossible in people.
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Animal models have helped scientists make some of the most important cancer discoveries. Over a century ago, animal models gave us the first evidence of a link between certain chemicals and cancer. Thanks to this, and research that followed it, we have been able to identify and remove many cancer-causing substances from our workplaces, diets and the environment.
Scientists will often use animal models such as mice, fruit flies or even zebra fish to try out an idea, test or treatment. Using fish might seem strange, but zebra fish are remarkably similar to humans. In fact, around 70% of human genes are found in zebra fish.
This genetic similarity, combined with rapid growth and breeding, makes the zebra fish an ideal candidate for laboratory research where experiments are repeated many times to make sure the results are accurate.
Mice are also often used in cancer research, and they are genetically more similar to us. But because they grow more slowly and have fewer offspring than zebra fish, they are more challenging to use in large–scale experiments.
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Even the best laboratory research has its limitations. Humans are complex creatures, and no animal model can perfectly predict how a cancer will progress or treatment will work in people.
Translational research takes what researchers have learned in the lab and tests it in humans. This knowledge then goes back to the lab to inform further investigations.
The journey from bench to bedside, which is how this research is often described, is slow and careful. It has to be. This ensures any test or treatment provides more benefit than harm to people with cancer.
Laboratory research is the cornerstone of all cancer research. It lays the foundations for future breakthroughs.
Expert review and references
Canadian Cancer Society | Société canadienne du cancer