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Biotechnology...What It Is And Does

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Lately the United States Food and Drug Administration (better known as the FDA) has been quite busy reviewing and approving applications for medications that have been developed by way of biotechnology.

For example, on August 24, 1998 the FDA approved a new drug called REMICADE (infliximab) manufactured by Centocor for the treatment of patients with Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory disorder of the gastrointestinal tract.

REMICADE is the first of a new class of agents designed to block the activity of a biologic-response mediator called tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha). REMICADE binds to TNR- alpha, neutralizes TNF-alpha on the cell membrane and in blood, and destroys the cells that make TNF-alpha. It thereby reduces both TNF- alpha and the intestinal inflammation in patients with Crohn’s disease.

For another example, HERCEPTIN (an antibody directed against a protein called HER2) that is made by Genentech is close to final approval by the FDA to fight breast cancer. Patients whose tumor cells have extra copies of the HER2 protein do significantly better when HERCEPTIN is added to standard chemotherapy. Also known as HER2/neu and c-erbB-2, the HER2 protein is what is termed a cell-surface receptor that transmits growth signals to the cell nucleus. HERCEPTIN is a humanized monoclonal antibody that appears to block these signals.

These and other medications have recently joined a long list of drugs designed and produced by the "biotech" industry, an industry which is still less than 20 years old.

The MedicineNet Medical Dictionary defines Biotechnology as: "The fusion of biology and technology. Biotechnology is the application of biological techniques to product research and development. In particular, biotechnology involves the use by industry of recombinant DNA, cell fusion, and new bioprocessing techniques. Biotechnology is expected to become increasingly important in the 21st century."

Another way to look at it, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, is to consider biotechnology as the "the application to industry of advances made in the techniques and instruments of research in the biological sciences".

The biotech industry grew rapidly in the 1980's after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was possible to patent "a live human-made microorganism".

The field of biotechnology has grown to include not only the techniques of genetic engineering but also many other biological techniques as applied to product research and development. Now, biotechnology includes facets of cancer research and treatment, research into cytokines (chemicals that are involved in inflammation and other body processes), poison control, and infectious disease therapies, to name but a few applications.

Insulin, human growth hormone and many other molecules close to the naturally occurring forms (or identical to them) have already emerged from research in biotechnology. These types of products are much less likely to be rejected or destroyed by the human immune system, which would otherwise recognize them as foreign.

Similar biotech techniques are being applied to the area of organ and cell transplants and are improving the success rates in the field of transplantation.

The biotech industry has done much more than just develop medications. The creation of bacteria that improve our ability to eliminate toxic wastes is another important contribution by biotechnology.

To help you in further reading, many relevant terms are defined in the MedicineNet Medical Dictionary. Just a few of the terms that you may come across are:

Antibodies: Specialized proteins produced by white blood cells that circulate in the blood seeking and attaching to foreign proteins, microorganisms or toxins in order to neutralize them. They are part of the immune system.

Monoclonal: Derived from a single cell and cells identical to that cell.

Monoclonal antibodies: Identical antibodies that are made in large amounts in the laboratory. Doctors and scientists are studying ways of using monoclonal antibodies to treat leukemia and other diseases.

Receptor: In cell biology, a receptor is a structure on the surface of a cell or inside a cell that selectively receives and binds a specific substance. There are, for example, insulin receptors, low- density lipoprotein (LDL) receptors, etc.

Recombinant DNA molecules: A combination of DNA molecules of different origin that are joined using recombinant DNA technology.

Recombinant DNA technology: A series of procedures used to join together (recombine) DNA segments. A recombinant DNA molecule is constructed (recombined) from segments from two or more different DNA molecules. Under certain conditions, a recombinant DNA molecule can enter a cell and replicate there, autonomously (on its own) or after it has become integrated into a chromosome.

An excellent source of material regarding the Biotechnology Industry is The World Wide Web Virtual Library: Biotechnology.

The field of biotechnology has become so important that numerous publications are now devoted to it, among them an offspring of the eminent British journal Nature, Nature Biotechnology.

 

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