Defining Research Terms

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What do the terms “Basic”, “Clinical” and “Translational” mean when used to describe biomedical research studies?

By Donna Schaffer, HA Research Associate

In the field of biomedical research the terms “basic research” and “clinical research” are often used to distinguish between two different approaches to studying the causes and treatment of disease.  Simply stated, in basic research a question is pursued for the purpose of increasing knowledge and understanding of underlying biological processes without regard to its application.  Basic research usually occurs in a laboratory setting, often with animal subjects.  By contrast, in clinical research a question is pursued for the purpose of prevention, treatment, or cure for disease. Clinical research (AKA applied research) takes place in the clinical setting with humans as the study subjects.

Within the domain of clinical research, perhaps the best known study type is the “clinical trial”.  The clinical trial involves the administration of a test regimen to humans to evaluate its efficacy and safety.  It is frequently referred to as the “gold standard” in biomedical research and is the study design required by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to the approval of pharmaceutical agents.

There are other forms of clinical research which, while conducted in the clinical setting with patients as the study subjects, may not, like the clinical trial, be interventional in nature. These clinical studies may involve prospectively observing the outcomes of a group of patients over time (cohort study) or retrospectively comparing a group of persons with a disease against a group of persons without a disease (case-control study).

When research findings originate in the laboratory or other limited settings or study populations, they may require “translation” from “bench to bedside”.  So a somewhat newer term, “translational research”, has been coined to describe research that aims to bring knowledge gained from basic research or early clinical research into mainstream clinical practice.  A variety of study types and research methods may be use in translational research.

Because all three of these terms — basic, clinical, and translational — are dependent upon the context in which they are used, it’s always a good idea to ask about a study’s aims, methods and outcomes to better understand the research.

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