The simplest form of nutrition research is an in vitro study. In vitro means “within glass”, so these methods are performed within flasks, dishes, plates, and test tubes, although most of these are no longer glass (mostly plastic now). These studies are performed outside of a living organism, so the results need to be interpreted with this fact in mind.
One common form of in vitro research is cell culture. This involves growing cells in flasks and dishes. In order for cells to grow they need a nutrient source. For cell culture the nutrient source is referred to as media. Media supplies nutrients to the cells in vitro similarly to how blood performs this function within the body. Most cells adhere to the bottom of the flask and are so small that a microscope is needed to see them.
Cells are only handled inside a biosafety cabinet (aka cell culture hood). The hood is sterile and protects the cells from the outside environment. The cells need to be protected because they do not have human skin as a barrier to keep microorganisms, etc., from contaminating them.
Figure 1.32 Flask containing media and cells (left); biosafety cabinet (cell culture hood, right)
Cells are grown inside an incubator, which is a device that provides the optimal temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations for cells and microorganisms. By imitating the body’s temperature and CO2 levels (37 degrees Celsius, 5% CO2), the incubator allows cells to grow even though they are outside the body.
A limitation of in vitro research compared to in vivo research is that it typically does not take into digestion or bioavailability into account. This means that the concentration used might not be physiologically possible (it might be much higher) and that digestion and metabolism of what is being provided to cells may not be taken into account. Cell-based in vitro research is not as complex of a biological system as animals or people that have tissues, organs, etc. working together as well.
Figure 1.33 Outside and inside of an incubator
Animal studies are one form of in vivo research, which translates to “within the living”. Rats and mice are the most common animals used in nutrition research.
Why do animal research?
Animals can be used in research that would be unethical to conduct in humans. Researchers can make sure that a certain regimen is safe before it is researched in humans. One advantage of animal dietary studies is that researchers can control exactly what the animals eat. In human studies, researchers can tell subjects what to eat and provide them with the food, but that does not necessarily mean that they are going to consume exactly what they are supposed to. Also people are not great at estimating, recording, or reporting how much or what they eat/ate. Animal studies are also, normally, far less expensive than human studies.
There are some important factors to keep in mind when interpreting animal research. First, an animal’s metabolism and physiology is different than humans. As a result, animals’ absorption and bioavailability of compounds can differ from humans. Furthermore, animal models of disease (cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc.), although similar, are different from the human disease. So these factors have to be considered when interpreting results from this type of research. Nevertheless, animal studies have been, and continue to be, important for nutrition research.