In Vitro vs. In Vivo Studies: Definitions & Processes

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

This lesson is going to look at the two main categories for how we study the body. We will cover in-vitro as well as in-vivo studies and look at some of the most common processes used.

Studying the Body

Very early in life, you found happiness in learning more about your body. This excitement has evolved to you having the desire to know more about not just your body, but about other people's bodies as well. This is what led you to enter the field of biomedical research. There are so many things that you have learned in the process of getting your biomedical education.

One area of learning has to do with how we study the body. This is something that doctors and scientists like you do on a daily basis. Both in vitro and in vivo studies are used to learn more about what is going on inside of the body. And of course, all of your research studies regardless of type are performed using control and experimental groups in order to observe any difference in whatever is being studied.

In Vitro Studies

People aren't very willing to subject their bodies to things like surgery and medication when we're not sure what will happen to them once they take the pills or have the procedure. For this reason, you have learned to utilize in vitro studies, which are experiments performed outside of the body.

Most of your initial experiments in your research studies involve you doing cytology, or cellular studies. These are studies where you obtain specific types of cells from the body in order to study them. Once the cells are obtained, they are kept in controlled conditions that closely mimic the inside of the body. The cells can be exposed to different substances in order to see how the cells react. This can show you how those substances will cause changes when they are introduced into our bodies. For example, researchers have used this approach to study what happens with some illegal drugs, and cancer studies have used cytology in order to understand how cancer cells respond to certain environmental conditions and foods.

Cytology studies help to determine the differences between normal and cancerous cells
Diagram showing cytology study

Bacterial cell culture studies are something that you perform regularly when need to learn more about what medications are effective against certain bacterial infections of the body. Bacteria are grown in a controlled laboratory environment and antibiotics are added to them to see if they stop bacterial growth, cause bacterial death or do nothing, meaning they're not effective at all. This type of research has helped doctors learn which antibiotics to prescribe against specific bacterial infections.

The lab next to yours is doing histology studies, which are tissue culture studies. You remember that these are studies where body tissues are removed from the body to examine physical, chemical, and microscopic properties. The removal of body tissue is known as a tissue biopsy. These studies are used to understand what normal tissues look like versus diseased tissues. Doctors often use this in their offices in order to diagnose diseases and cancers of the body. Researchers use these types of studies to see changes in tissues following various types of treatments with medications or procedures.

Bodily fluid studies are the studies that you use to learn about the various fluids in the body, such as sputum, blood, lymph, and urine. The fluids give great insight into what is going on in the body and they can be used to see how certain substances may cause changes. For example, nurses working in a doctor's office might perform a urinalysis in order to determine a person's state of health. This is a physical, chemical, and microscopic examination of urine. A urinalysis is a way to detect certain diseases and infections early. or biomedical researchers like you might use serology, which is the study of blood serum to test things such as how cancerous blood responds to certain foods or liquids.

In Vivo Studies

Once you and other researchers understand the possible ways that the body may react to something, then you'll conduct studies within the body. Studies performed within the body are known as in vivo studies. The average person will let you know that it is great that you understand how their bodily fluids, cells and tissues responded in a laboratory setting, but their body is not a laboratory. They want to know what will happen in their bodies before anything is actually done to them.

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