What In Vitro Means in Research Studies

In vitro comes from the Latin term "in glass." The term refers to studies of biological properties that are done in a test tube (i.e. in a glass vessel) rather than in a human or animal. In vitro studies are often contrasted to in vivo ("in life") studies which are done inside an organism.

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In vitro studies allow scientists to isolate specific cells, bacteria, and viruses and study them without the distractions of having to look at a whole organism. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes results found in in vitro studies do not translate well to "real life." Humans are much more complicated than test tubes. However, compared to in vivo studies in vitro studies are substantially faster. They are also less expensive and can be done with fewer ethical and safety concerns.

In Vitro Studies and STI Research

In vitro studies play an important role in STI research. For example, much early drug development is done in vitro. Scientists wouldn't be able to come up with new HIV treatments without this type of research. Early research on drug efficacy is done in cell culture. Infected cells are treated to get an idea of whether the medication will work.

Most STI testing research is also done in vitro. Although urine or blood samples are taken from humans, new tests are built in the lab. Samples which are known to be infected or uninfected can be tested with different options. Then those results can be compared to whatever is the gold standard test.

In vitro research is important across all fields of medical research. With the exception of research that has to be done in a living organism, it's easier, cheaper and safer. In vitro research is essential to making medical advances. It can't do everything that in vivo research can, but it can do a lot.

5 Sources
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By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.