Biotechnology: The New Frontier in Healthcare

Biotechnology refers to the utilization of microorganisms and biologically based processes to provide novel solutions to pressing issues in society and meet human needs on both macroscopic and individualized scales. Today, the biotechnology industry is a rapidly growing and multidisciplinary field encompassing agricultural technologies, environmental engineering, genomics, drug discovery, and biologically-derived fuels. Indeed, the past ten years have seen the industry grow at nearly 4% per annum, and the outlook for the field’s future is only growing more promising with the advent of more advanced and efficient technologies. Since modern biotechnology hinges on extracting useful products and processes from organisms, it follows that many of the industry’s products are devoted to healthcare. The application of biotechnology in medicine has generated hundreds of vaccines and other healthcare products in the US alone. In medicine, biotechnology utilizes primarily genomics and proteomics (the study of the entire protein sequence expressed by the human genome) to engineer microbes and other cells to develop novel drugs in a field also known as pharmacogenetics. The biggest boon to biotechnologists, a term used to refer to scientists working in biotechnology, has come from the work of founder of Celera Genomics Craig Venter, whose company was the world’s first to map the entire human genome in 2000. In the fourteen years since then, momentous achievements have been made in increasing accessibility to and knowledge of the human genome for the public as well as scientists through efforts such as the UCSC Human Genome Browser. The human genome and its associated proteome, therefore, undergird virtually the entirety of pharmacogenomics’s relevance and utilization in healthcare. Biotech-powered healthcare is inherently different from traditional practices of the pharmaceutical industry in that it aims to identify the genetic mechanism of a disease rather than its chemical basis. By uncovering the genes responsible for expressing proteins known to be causative factors in a disease, biotechnologists aim to develop targeted medicines that can more efficiently and rapidly treat patients. Another term for these practices is personalized medicine, which tailors medical products and decisions to the individual rather than proposing widely-distributable, but potentially less effective, drugs. Out of the approximately 25,000 genes in the human genome, the variation between two randomly selected humans is a mere 0.1%. For comparison, the genetic similarity to drosophilia melanogaster, the fruit fly, is 60%; for the banana, 50%. Phamacogenetics, therefore, serves to capitalize on the 0.1% of genetic variation. By performing a GWAS (genome-wide association study) on genomes of patients suffering from a particular condition, biotechnologists can identify similar mutations on gene sequences between afflicted patients that may suggest a causative link between the proteins expressed by those gene sequences and the condition itself. Such information can be used to predict the risk of a person developing the disorder, as in the case of breast cancer, where populations with mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are more at risk for the disease.

Genetic testing companies such as 23andMe and Illumina offer the public the ability to sequence their genomes, but under current federal law cannot disseminate the resulting data to customers intending to use the results to predict their risk of developing a certain disease, effectively robbing the practice of its potential for predictive medicine. Biotechnology is an immense disruptive power far from being fully harnessed in today’s medical field, and its potential cannot be fully realized by applying 20th-century legislation to 21st-century emerging technologies.

Gene therapy, another promising application of biotechnology in healthcare, is based on the concept of replacing a mutated gene with DNA containing a normal, functional variant of the gene. Since 2006, patients with multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, and hemophilia have been cured in clinical trials through its use. Over the past 18 months, US corporations have invested over $500 million in gene therapy efforts. Glybera, a treatment for lipoprotein lipase deficiency, became the first form of genetic therapeutic treatment approved by US regulators for clinical use in 2012.

In addition to facilitating novel medical practices, biotechnology has also been put to use in the manufacturing of drugs, especially in Germany, where microorganisms produce primarily protein-based drugs in “bioreactors”, apparatuses in which biological processes are performed for industrial purposes. Currently, over 200 drugs have been produced using the antibody and hormone-producing bioreactors. As of 2007, 15% of Germany’s drugs were “biotechnically produced”. Although biotechnology has numerous legal and ethical hurdles to overcome before the world is able to fully embrace and appreciate its predictive and healing powers, it is a disruptive force in today’s traditional healthcare and pharmaceutical industries that will continue to be an enormous boon to mankind.

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