What is the role of biostatistics in modern medicine?

Cancer Research and Biostatistics

A breast cancer patient receives a trial medication treatment in the infusion center at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco.
A breast cancer patient receives a trial medication treatment in the infusion center at the UCSF Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Biostatistics is important in finding treatment for new drugs for diseases like cancer. "Cancer therapies tend to be very toxic. If you're a patient, and the usual therapy hasn't worked, you're desperate to find any therapy that offers hope to put you in remission," says Dr. McCulloch.

Biostatisticians look to design a study that tests as few patients as possible and gets them off the drugs quickly, so if they aren't working, they aren't subjected to the harmful side effects, he adds. All the while, the goal is to find which drugs work and ultimately reject the therapies that don't.

Biostatisticians help design, manage and analyze cancer clinical trials. They also help identify the causes and characteristics of cancer. Oncologists rely on these numbers to recommend treatments for their cancer patients. Since cancer is not a "one-size fits all" disease, biostatisticians and oncologists work closely together to identify how factors such as drug interaction, diet and nutrition play a role in cancer. They also examine the traits of cancer and how it occurs in various ages, genders and racial groups to work on prevention and treatment.

"Biostatistics itself is not going to cure cancer," says Dr. McCullouch. "When you do a study where the object is to cure cancer, you're able to answer questions like, 'Does something new work?' or 'Can I get something over the counter that's going to be just as effective?"

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