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Nimesha Tadepalle, PhDMay 23, 2024 5:30:00 AM4 min read

On In Vivo vs. In Vitro Models

Explore the differences between in vivo and in vitro models and their roles in drug discovery.


Understanding In Vivo Models

Exploring In Vitro Models

The Complementary Nature of In Vivo and In Vitro Models

Understanding In Vivo Models

In vivo models refer to experiments or studies conducted within a living organism, such as animals or humans. These models provide the complex biological processes and interactions that occur in a living system, so researchers can observe how a drug or treatment affects the entire organism, including factors such as metabolism, absorption, distribution, and excretion.

In vivo models provide valuable insights into the overall efficacy and safety of a drug candidate. They allow researchers to evaluate the drug's pharmacokinetics (how the drug is absorbed, distributed, metabolized, and excreted) and pharmacodynamics (how the drug interacts with its target and produces a therapeutic effect). By studying the drug's effects in a living organism, researchers can assess its potential side effects, toxicity, and interactions with other substances.

In vivo models are particularly useful in studying complex diseases and phenomena that involve multiple organ systems, such as conditions that involve the immune system. They enable researchers to investigate how a drug interacts with different tissues and organs, providing a more holistic understanding of its effects. In vivo models also allow for the evaluation of long-term effects, chronic conditions, and the overall impact on the organism's physiology.

Despite their many benefits, in vivo models can be time-consuming, expensive, and ethically challenging. They often require a significant number of animals and specialized facilities. Additionally, the complex nature of in vivo experiments can introduce variability and confounding factors that may affect the reproducibility of results. Despite these limitations, in vivo models remain essential for drug development and regulatory approval.

Exploring In Vitro Models

In vitro models, on the other hand, involve conducting experiments outside of a living organism, typically in a controlled laboratory setting. These models use isolated cells, tissues, or organs to study the effects of a drug or treatment. In vitro models offer a simplified and controlled environment and system that allows researchers to focus on specific aspects of drug development or drug-candidate evaluation. This controlled and reproducible environment reduces the variability often associated with in vivo models, where factors like genetics, diet, and environmental conditions can influence results. 

In vitro models can serve as a valuable, initial-screening tool for drug candidates. They enable researchers to assess the drug's basic characteristics, such as solubility, stability, and interaction with target molecules. The specificity and isolated nature of in vitro modeling also allow for the study of individual phenomena relevant to a particular disease or condition, providing valuable insights into the drug's mechanism of action.

A key advantages of in vitro models is their cost-effectiveness and efficiency. They require fewer resources, time, and financial investment compared to in vivo models, with less lead-time (in vivo experiments typically require animals to reach a certain age) and greater scalability to enable the testing of more conditions and/or more replicates in one experimental run. In vitro experiments can be easily replicated, leading to more reliable and reproducible results, as they eliminate the variability afforded by genetics and environmental instability. Additionally, in vitro models can be used to study drug interactions with human cells, helping to bridge the gap between preclinical research and clinical trials.

The Complementary Nature of In Vivo and In Vitro Models

As with any approach, in vitro models have certain limitations compared to in vivo studies. For one, they do not fully capture the complex interactions and physiological processes that occur in a living organism; they lack the systemic effects and dynamic nature of in vivo models. Therefore, findings from in vitro studies are validated in in vivo models before progressing to human clinical trials.

The drug-development pipeline involves the use of both types of systems, and there can be a few approaches to this. For example, in the linear fashion, in vitro assays can be run to efficiently screen a compound library, and hits from those screens can be tested in vivo to verify efficacy in an organism. In reverse, compounds that showed efficacy in animals can then be used in vitro to assess their effects in human cells and to determine their mechanisms of action or achieve other detailed, functional characterization. In vivo and in vitro studies can also be used alternatingly in the drug-development process. Initial screens can be used to identify leads that are then studied in vivo. Those that show efficacy in vivo can be used in downstream in vivo assays to understand their mechanisms of action or to obtain preliminary assessments of toxicity in specific, human cell types. 

Overall, in vitro models serve as valuable tools in the early stages of drug development, providing essential information about a drug's basic characteristics and potential mechanisms of action. They complement in vivo models and help researchers make informed decisions about which drug candidates to advance to further testing.


Nimesha Tadepalle, PhD

Nimesha has a background in cell and molecular biology with experience in neurodegenerative disease modeling. She earned her PhD from the University of Cologne, Germany, where she studied the role of lipid metabolism in the neurodegenerative disease Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia. She then went on to do her postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California where she investigated the contribution of mitochondrial-mediated inflammation in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.