Cancer Research – How it Works

Why do Research?

To live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives is a common aspiration for all.
For humans, as a specie, the increase in our life span has been largely due to the many advances in medical research. Research is the process of developing an idea to improve the health and well-being of people. Medical research, also known as health research, refers to the process of using scientific methods with the aim to produce knowledge about human diseases, the prevention and treatment of illness, and the promotion of health. Among the major benefits of medical research have been vaccines for polio and  measles, insulin treatment for diabetes, new types of antibiotics for infections, treatments for AIDS, statins for high cholesterol (which leads to stroke & heart disease), new surgical methods, like microsurgery, and new and successful treatments for many types of cancer. Many new treatments are also expected out of the human-genome project, but many challenges remain, including the emergence of antibiotic resistance, the obesity epidemic.


How does research work?

Medical research uses the scientific method to improve human health and well-being. It is often over long periods of time, in many stages, and with many hurdles to overcome.  For cancer, medical research is proving vital in discovering new treatments and drugs to improve longevity (life spans) and patients’ quality of life.

The very first stage of research is to identify the problem and then develop some ideas as to how to combat it. Researchers  then create a proposal to investigate, and from this, to secure funding. Funding is important as without it, medical research cannot happen.

Researchers then apply for funding, from sources like government, business, individuals, fundraising groups, or pharmaceutical or biotech companies. When funds are secured, research can begin, by collecting data and testing their ideas.

Where is cancer research done?

Researchers work at medical facilities in hospitals, research institutes or in universities. Often pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies can also be involved in the research or later, the production of a new medical treatment. If studies advance to a clinical trial, these usually only occur in hospitals or university research clinics. Medical research encompasses a broad range of scientific studies and is split into two types, pre-clinical and clinical research: 

Pre-clinical research

Pre-clinical research bridges the gap between the ‘discovery’ and the clinical trials. Pre-clinical research is divided between basic research and translational research.

Basic, or discovery research builds our understanding of complex concepts and lays the foundation for further research.

Translational research builds on basic research by bringing specialists and researchers together to refine and advance the application of a proposed medical intervention (for example a new drug or device). Its results must show that the new intervention (eg. drug) can work safely in humans.

Clinical research

Clinical research evaluates whether a medical intervention, such as a new drug or medical device, can work safely and effectively within patients. To test a medical invention, researchers will use volunteer patients in clinical trials. There are four phases to clinical trials:

  • Phase 1 trials - test the safety of the drug on small groups.
  • Phase 2 trials - use a larger group and test the accuracy of phase 1, and the efficacy of the drug.
  • Phase 3 trials look at safety and efficacy in a larger population.
  • Phase 4 trials can be run after the new treatment is made available for public use. This phase is not essential but can be used to monitor and record side effects in the real world.

To find out more about clinical trials, speak to your GP or specialist. There is more information at Australian Clinical Trials.

 Publishing is an important stage in medical research, as it allows a study to be reviewed and replicated by other researchers in the relevant communities. Publishing helps research to be shared with other scientists, and it can be further tested, validated, and used to advance our knowledge.

Does research take long?
New treatments can take 10 years or more to develop and a clinical trial or release. This is to ensure the safety of patients and that the new treatment works without causing harm.  The time it takes is affected by the type of cancer and the number of patients available for clinical trials, the type of treatment, the follow-up period and many other factors.

Why is medical research important?
Research is the only way cures and treatments for patients suffering from a disease or condition can be found and tested to know they work, and they