The Who, What, Where, When and Sometimes, Why.

Types of Research Studies

Epidemiology studies

Epidemiology is the study of the patterns and causes of disease in people.

The goal of epidemiology studies is to give information that helps support or disprove an idea about a possible link between an exposure (such as alcohol use) and an outcome (such as breast cancer) in people.

The 2 main types of epidemiology studies are:

Though they have the same goal, observational studies and randomized controlled trials differ in:

  • The way they are conducted
  • The strengths of the conclusions they reach

Observational studies

In observational studies, the people in the study live their daily lives as they choose. They exercise when they want, eat what they like and take the medicines their doctors prescribe. They report these activities to researchers.

There are 2 types of observational studies:

  • Prospective cohort studies
  • Case-control studies

Prospective cohort studies

A prospective cohort study follows a large group of people forward in time.

Some people will have a certain exposure (such as alcohol use) and others will not.

Researchers compare the different groups (for example, they might compare heavy drinkers, moderate drinkers, light drinkers and non-drinkers) to see which group is more likely to develop an outcome (such as breast cancer).

Case-control studies

In a case-control study, researchers identify 2 groups: cases and controls.

  • Cases are people who already have an outcome (such as breast cancer).
  • Controls are people who do not have the outcome.

The researchers compare the 2 groups to see if any exposure (such as alcohol use) was more common in the history of one group compared to the other.

Randomized controlled trials

In randomized controlled trials (randomized clinical trials), researchers divide people into groups to compare different treatments or other interventions.

These studies are called randomized controlled trials because people are randomly assigned (as if by coin toss) to a certain treatment or behavior.

For example, in a randomized trial of a new drug therapy, half the people might be randomly assigned to a new drug and the other half to the standard treatment.

In a randomized controlled trial on exercise and breast cancer risk, half the participants might be randomly assigned to walk 10 minutes a day and the other half to walk 2 hours a day. The researchers would then see which group was more likely to develop breast cancer, those who walked 10 minutes a day or those who walked 2 hours a day.

Many behaviors, such as smoking or heavy alcohol drinking, can’t be tested in this way because it isn’t ethical to assign people to a behavior known to be harmful. In these cases, researchers must use observational studies.

Patient series

A patient series is a doctor’s observations of a group of patients who are given a certain treatment.

There is no comparison group in a patient series. All the patients are given a certain treatment and the outcomes of these patients are studied.

With no comparison group, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of a treatment.

For example, if 10 women with breast cancer are given a new treatment, and 2 of them respond, how do we know if the new treatment is better than standard treatment?

If we had a comparison group of 10 women with breast cancer who got standard treatment, we could compare their outcomes to those of the 10 women on the new treatment. If no women in the comparison group responded to standard treatment, then the 2 women who responded to the new treatment would represent a success of the new treatment. If, however, 2 of the 10 women in the standard treatment group also responded, then the new treatment is no better than the standard.

The lack of a comparison group makes it hard to draw conclusions from a patient series. However, data from a patient series can help form hypotheses that can be tested in other types of studies.

Strengths and weaknesses of different types of research studies

When reviewing scientific evidence, it’s helpful to understand the strengths and weaknesses of different types of research studies.

Case-control studies

Case-control studies have some strengths:

  • They are easy and fairly inexpensive to conduct.
  • They are a good way for researchers to study rare diseases. If a disease is rare, you would need to follow a very large group of people forward in time to have many cases of the disease develop.
  • They are a good way for researchers to study diseases that take a long time to develop. If a disease takes a long time to develop, you would have to follow a group of people for many years for cases of the disease to develop.

Case-control studies look at past exposures of people who already have a disease. This causes some concerns:

  • It can be hard for people to remember details about the past, especially when it comes to things like diet.
  • Memories can be biased (or influenced) because the information is gathered after an event, such as the diagnosis of breast cancer.
  • When it comes to sensitive topics (such as abortion), the cases (the people with the disease) may be much more likely to give complete information about their history than the controls (the people without the disease). Such differences in reporting bias study results.

For these reasons, the accuracy of the results of case-control studies can be questionable.

Cohort studies

Prospective cohort studies avoid many of the problems of case-control studies because they gather information from people over time and before the events being studied happen.

However, compared to case-control studies, they are expensive to conduct.

Nested case-control studies

A nested case-control study is a case-control study within a prospective cohort study.

A nested case-control study is a case-control study within a prospective cohort study.

Nested case-control studies use the design of a case-control study. However, they use data gathered as part of a cohort study, so they are less prone to bias than standard case-control studies.

All things being equal, the strength of nested case-control data falls somewhere between that of standard case-control studies and cohort studies.

Randomized controlled trials

Randomized controlled trials are considered the gold standard for studying certain exposures, such as breast cancer treatment. Similar to cohort studies, they follow people over time and are expensive to do.

Because people in a randomized trial are randomly assigned to an intervention (such as a new chemotherapy drug) or standard treatment, these studies are more likely to show the true link between an intervention and a health outcome (such as survival).

Learn more about randomized clinical trials, including the types of clinical trials, benefits, and possible drawbacks.

Overall study quality

The overall quality of a study is important. For example, the results from a well-designed case-control study can be more reliable than those from a poorly-designed randomized trial.

Finding more information on research study design

If you’re interested in learning more about research study design, a basic epidemiology textbook from your local library may be a good place to start. The National Cancer Institute also has information on epidemiology studies and randomized controlled trials.

Animal studies

Animal studies add to our understanding of how and why some factors cause cancer in people.

However, there are many differences between animals and people, so it makes it hard to translate findings directly from one to the other.

Animal studies are also designed differently. They often look at exposures in larger doses and for shorter periods of time than are suitable for people.

While animal studies can lay the groundwork for research in people, we need human studies to draw conclusions for people.

All data presented within this section of the website come from studies done with people.

Joining a research study

Research is ongoing to improve all areas of breast cancer, from prevention to treatment.

Whether you’re newly diagnosed, finished breast cancer treatment many years ago, or even if you’ve never had breast cancer, there may be breast cancer research studies you can join.

If you have breast cancer, in collaboration with Susan G. Komen® offers a custom matching service that can help find a studies that fit your needs. You can also visit the National Institutes of Health’s website to find a breast cancer treatment study.

If you’re interested in being part of other studies, talk with your health care provider. Your provider may know of studies in your area looking for volunteers.

Learn more about joining a research study.

Learn more about clinical trials.

Learn what Komen is doing to help people find and participate in clinical trials.

Updated 12/16/20


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