Biotechnology, What are the benefits of biotech in medicine?

People across the world are living healthier, longer and more productive lives thanks in part to the increasingly important contributions from the biotechnology sector. In fact, only a century ago the average global life expectancy was around 30 years. Today that average is 71.5 years. So what is biotechnology and how is the biotechnology sector helping people remain healthier for longer?

Biotechnology is the science of working at the microscopic cellular level (often at the level of DNA) to research and produce new pharmaceutical products and often to provide medical specialists with the ability to diagnose new conditions. Some of the most groundbreaking biotechnology work has been in the fields of genetic testing, the production of advanced drugs and perhaps most excitingly to advance the production of artificial tissue for human transplantation.

The field of growing artificial tissue, including organs, is one that relies almost exclusively on biotechnology research in the field of stem cells. The latest discovery are cells (‘extended pluripotent stem cells’) that are different from those harvested from embryos or that were produced in labs. those are unable to change into every single type of other cells in the human body. These latest stem cells are not only able to change into muscle, blood and bone and other tissues, but also organs and structures such as the placenta – one of the so-called ‘extra-embryonic tissues’ that are essential for embryonic survival.

Continued research into stem cells holds the promise of not only growing internal organs in a laboratory for use in transplantation – but to also regrow whole limbs and cure cancer.

Another exciting field of study by those in the biotechnology sector is into what are called ‘monoclonal antibodies’. These molecules have been grown in labs ever since the 1970s – and are used to boost the function of the immune system. However, exciting new developments mean that great strides have been taken to enhance the function of these molecules so that they mimic the body’s natural antibodies – and could potentially allow these molecules to directly attach cancer cells for instance. They can also act to instruct the body what cells are cancerous so that the hosts’ immune system can then attack them, they can also trigger cell membrane destruction and disrupt the blood supply to cancerous cells. these approaches may one day completely eliminate the need for chemotherapy and other approaches which can cause immense damage to the cancer sufferer’s healthy cells.

Another field of study is genome sequencing. In effect, this is mapping the entire DNA structure of the human body. The first chromosome (chromosome 22) was finally fully mapped in 1999. Thousands more have now been mapped or ‘sequenced’. By doing this medical practitioners can now anticipate genetic problems that are passed from parents to children – and take steps to correct many of those problems at the embryonic stage of development. Another direct result of biotechnological research has been the production of widely available home genome sequencing tests. Individuals can use these kits and then supply a lab with material that can be examined to find out whether that individual has an increased susceptibility to hereditary diseases.

Finally, there is the enormous potential of gene therapy to treat hereditary diseases. This is not the stuff of science fiction, in 2017 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a gene therapy drug that can cure a rare form of hereditary blindness. The FDA has recently also approved a gene therapy treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

It is clear that the biotechnology sector is today making a real difference in the lives of people across the globe. The future of biotechnology is even more exciting – and may result in a literal revolution in the way that medicine is practiced.