Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Basic Research: It Starts With an Idea

Basic research comes from the idea that in order to treat a human condition - like pain, diabetes, or heart disease - we need to learn about that condition first. That's where I come in. Hi, I'm Jackie, and I'm a basic researcher.

As a basic researcher, I look at what we already know about a condition and the treatments that work, and then come up with new ideas to enhance both our understanding of the condition and how best to treat it.

How did we find out that ibuprofen soothes headaches, or that anti-histamines calm an allergic reaction? There was a process involved, and the process began with basic research.

We make hypotheses (educated guesses) to advance our field. Now that sounds all science-y and difficult, but we do our jobs using the same methods that most professionals use.

Take a small business owner; we’ll call her Sarah. Sarah sells sports equipment. As winter approaches, due to changing weather patterns and past history, she knows that she needs to order more ski equipment. But she can’t just order any old skis. She needs to consider what will sell. So she looks back at last year’s inventory, and finds that one company was more popular than any of the others she had carried, and there was a certain type of ski that constantly sold out. Of course, she’s going to use this information to inform her order for this year. She doesn’t just open up her catalog, sing eeny-meeny-miny-mo, and order wherever her finger lands. She hypothesizes that based on the data already available, skis X, Y, and Z will sell best.

To use a more researcher-friendly example, let's assume Dr. Jay's research focus is on heart disease. Like Sarah the business owner, Dr. Jay heads to the books to get started. He reviews already published literature on the disease, and notices that previous research shows an increase in the level of a certain protein in the blood for people who have just suffered a heart attack. Naturally, he wonders if this protein plays a role in the occurrence of that heart attack, and so goes on to figure out what it is, what controls its levels, and what happens when he blocks its production. By asking these questions, he's really wondering can this protein be a target that we can use to decrease instances of heart attack. As a basic researcher, Dr. Jay discovers all of this before applying it to humans, but his research is driven by the intention to use his findings to eventually improve upon public health.

You might not head to Dr. Jay when you have a cold, but his role in trying to keep people healthy is an important one. He starts with an idea, and then research continues from there.*

*Much like this series, which you can read more of next Monday!

Library image courtesy of Wrote.

This is Part 2 of 13 in our From Ideas to Treatments series.
Part 1 - From Ideas to Treatments
Part 2 - Basic Research: It Starts with an Idea
Part 3 - You're an Animal!
Part 4 - Can I care about animals and do research too?
Part 5 - Regulations for Animal Research
Part 6 - Clinical Research Trials
Part 7 - Patient Safety in Clinical Trials: IRB Approval
Part 8 - Recruitment
Part 9 - Health Disparities in Clinical Research
Part 10 - A Brief History of Inclusion Policies
Part 11 - Breaking News: Women and Men are Different
Part 12 - Including Minorities in Clinical Trial Research
Part 13 - Bringing From Ideas to Treatments Home

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