Disease models

Understanding the causes of disease to find new treatments

To understand what causes a disease, scientists often create a disease model – a biological system in the lab that mirrors a disease or shows some of the same disease processes.

Crystals of the influenza polymerase protein
This image shows crystals of the influenza polymerase protein, which is essential for the survival of the influenza virus. X-ray crystallography is a method used to capture the polymerase protein in different states of action. Unravelling the influenza polymerase structure, helps understand its function and could allow scientists to design novel drugs to prevent or treat the disease.

Such a model could be cells growing in a Petri dish, or organisms that lack a certain cell type, tissue, or organ structure. Studying these cells or organisms under controlled lab conditions removes the randomness of the environmental influences that affect humans. Disease processes can also be studied using computer models or statistical approaches.

EMBL scientists study models for several common human diseases. By letting cells grow into spherical assemblies called organoids, they can study the role of individual genes in processes such as cancer development, or investigate how cancerous cells react to drug treatment. Bioinformaticians develop computer models to simulate the processes by which viruses infect their host cells and multiply within them. Other researchers engineer specialised scaffolds on which they can grow cells into defined layers, similar to tissues found in the body. These cells can be used to study biological processes associated with vascular disease or malaria. All of these systems help us to better understand human diseases and may lead to new approaches for their treatment.

EMBL units researching disease models

Genome Biology

Scientists in the Genome Biology Unit use and develop cutting-edge methods to study how information across different molecular layers (DNA, RNA, Proteins, metabolites) are regulated, processed, and utilised, and how their variation leads to different phenotypes, including disease.

Structural and computational biology

Scientists in this unit use integrated structural and computational techniques to study biology at scales from molecular structures to organismal communities.

Structural biology

At its sites in Hamburg and Grenoble, EMBL provides its researchers and hundreds of external users each year with access to world-leading sources of X-ray and neutron radiation, enabling them to study the structures of biological molecules.

Tissue biology and disease modelling

Scientists at EMBL Barcelona use advanced technologies to observe, manipulate, and model how changes in genes percolate through cells, tissues, and organs, in health and disease.

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From microscopy to mycology, from development to disease modelling, EMBL researchers cover a wide range of topics in the biological sciences.