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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
7 Mar 2019

What is basic research and why is it important?

On March 12, the Institute will host A Focus on Pancreatic Cancer: From Foundations to Early Detection, a part of our Public Lecture Series, which is designed to engage and inform the community. The event is free and open, but registration is required (you can sign up here).

 Attendees will hear from experts Dr. Brian Haab, whose research may lead to new ways to detect pancreatic cancer earlier and more definitively, and Dr. Bart Williams, whose work is shedding new light on how cancer cells communicate and how we may be able to block those signals, thereby treating cancer. The lecture also will highlight the importance of basic research and how it fuels advances in the clinic. 

What is basic research?
Basic research seeks to answer fundamental questions about the world. It increases our knowledge and, in the case of biomedical research, lays the foundation for new treatment strategies for disease.

Questions that basic research seeks to answer include:

  • How do cells “talk” to each other?
  • How does a specific protein work?
  • How does the shape of a molecule affect its function?

For example, the lab of Dr. Bart Williams investigates a cellular communication network called Wnt (pronounced “wint”), which plays an important role in embryonic development, particularly in the formation of the bones and the heart. Problems with Wnt can result in an array of diseases, including breast cancer, glioblastoma (a type of brain cancer) and type II diabetes. Dr. Williams seeks to understand the nuts and bolts of Wnt down to the most minute level, solving a number of basic research questions while also setting the stage for impacting human health.

How does basic research impact health?
Basic research is the first step toward finding therapies for diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s. Once scientists understand the fundamental elements underlying our biology, they can leverage this knowledge to determine the causes of disease and find new treatments.

This process is called translational research because the scientist is translating basic research discoveries into applied solutions. In many ways, basic research is the springboard that propels health- and disease-focused research forward and, eventually, into the doctor’s office.

Translational research includes:

  • Figuring out how to switch off a gene that causes uncontrolled cancer cell growth
  • Understanding why bone is lost in osteoporosis and slowing or stopping the process
  • Determining why some cancers migrate to the bone and finding ways to prevent it

An example comes from the lab of Dr. Brian Haab, who developed a more precise method for diagnosing pancreatic cancer early on by detecting sugars in the blood produced by malignant cells. This approach, which combines a new test with a currently existing test, is now being investigated in a clinical setting and would not have been possible without a precise understanding of the basic biology of pancreatic cancer cells.

Learn more about Dr. Haab’s research here and Dr. Williams’ research here.

Looking for more information on basic and translational research? Check out our deep dive here.