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Investigating human health and disease

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Study the cell and molecular science of health and disease, from genetics, biomedicine and immunology to cell and microbiology. Experience laboratory approaches to studying and diagnosing conditions such as cancer and autoimmune disorders. Learn how health research is communicated through scientific literature. Plus, analyse statistical data and report on data you’ve collected. You’ll explore different areas of the health sciences sector, from clinical sciences to publishing and industry.

What you will study

In this online module, you’ll study six topics. You’ll carry out onscreen investigations using interactive tools, online databases and published articles.

Topic 1 – Humans as a model for investigation
This first topic introduces you to working with participants in health-based research, something that is core to improving our understanding of the normal and diseased human body. From the ethics and governance of human studies through to clinical trials, reporting and data analysis, this topic introduces you to core underlying principles and skills that thread throughout the module. You’ll carry out a study at home and experience collecting and managing informed consent of your participants performing a simple cognitive test.

Topic 2 – Cancers: from molecular dysfunction to therapy
In this topic, you’ll explore the biological and molecular basis of human cancer, from its global epidemiology and genetics to the micro-evolutionary aspects of how cells progress to form aggressive cancers. You’ll experience how tumours are graded in the pathology laboratory and see how gene expression can be used as a prognostic marker to inform cancer diagnosis, management and therapy.

Topic 3 – Rare disease: investigating cellular function
This topic will take you deep into the inner workings of the cell, allowing you to study disease at the cellular level and see how our understanding of normal cellular organelles and their function is informed using cells from individuals with rare diseases. You’ll explore internal cellular structures using fluorescence microscopy and see how cells are used to research potential treatments – from stem cells to cell and molecular therapies.

Topic 4 – Autoimmunity
This topic explores how immune cells and plasma are important in self and non-self-discrimination and their role in the pathology of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis that arise from inflammation and tissue damage. You’ll use clinical testing techniques to detect and quantitate auto-antibodies, exploring how specificity and sensitivity is achieved in a laboratory-based diagnostic assay. You’ll also use library and internet resources to research an autoimmune disease and contribute your findings to a tutor group presentation.

Topic 5 – Genetic variation: towards personalised health
This topic will develop your understanding of inheritance patterns of human traits, how our present-day genome arose, how it functions and how the DNA sequence variation that contributes to health arises and is detected. You’ll investigate how genetic variation affects drug metabolism, learn how genetic testing is performed and explore the potential for gene-based therapies.

Topic 6 – Introducing the microbial world
This topic will develop an understanding of the core principles of microbial diversity, growth and bacterial community – all aspects relevant to human niches such as the skin, gut and oral cavities – and how local interactions and communications with host cells impact on both health and disease. You’ll study the gut microbiome and use a series of diagnostic tests to detect common clinical infections caused by microbes.

Throughout the module, you’ll access and use large health-related datasets and learn how the module’s themes can be contextualised within the wider health sciences sector where you will hear from representatives from publishing, genetic counselling, SMEs, pharma, charity, NHS diagnostics and clinical trials.

You will learn

A key aim of the module is to continue your development as a health scientist. Providing you with opportunities to study human disease using common investigative tools and approaches ranging from molecular testing through to working with human participants. The module also aims to increase your understanding of the wider health sciences sector, the professional skills required as a health scientist, and a selection of roles and occupations it encompasses.

Key skills developed will include:

  • communication skills, in particular presentation skills
  • collaboration skills
  • observation, investigation and practical skills
  • mathematical skills, including the use of statistics
  • information gathering, analytical and interpretative skills.

Entry requirements

There are no formal entry requirements for this module.

At The Open University, we believe education should be open to all, so we provide high-quality university education to anyone who wishes to realise their ambitions and fulfil their potential.

Even though there are no entry requirements, you’ll need appropriate knowledge of biology or health obtained through:

  • OU level 1 and some OU level 2 study
  • equivalent work at another higher education institution.

Are you ready for S290?

Preparatory work

We recommend you’ve completed:


  • {Human biology {SK299]}.

You’ll be able to access the module website 2–3 weeks before the module starts, so you can learn to navigate the website and organise your study plan. A module primer contains the basic concepts you should understand. You can use this primer to refresh your knowledge before starting your studies or as a resource throughout.

What's included

You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assignment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • access to student and tutor group forums.

We’ll also give you a printed practical workbook

You will need

  • Calculator (or some way of working with calculations).

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums. Participation in some of these discussions will form part of your assessed work.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

Laboratory schools

The School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences offers optional laboratory schools in Milton Keynes at an additional cost. Laboratory schools are not part of this module but may be of interest if you wish to gain relevant hands-on laboratory experience.

Further information and instructions for booking are on the SS022 website.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S290 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Investigating human health and disease (S290) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024.

We expect it to start for the last time in October 2028.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment