Biotechnology plays a significant role in supporting everyday life. From the food we eat to the products we use to clean our homes, most of the products we use and consume were developed thanks to the scientific and engineering techniques developed by the biotech industry.
Although the work of biotechnologists has become instrumental in various industries, biotech’s most obvious contributions are in the sectors of medicine and healthcare. Genetic engineering, for example, has supported the development of new medicines as well as lifesaving treatment modalities that address everything from diseases and other medical conditions to many types of traumas or injuries. In addition, biotech efforts—done in either university labs, pharma facilities, or coworking lab spaces that are a biosafety level 2 laboratory or higher—are also why vaccines against highly contagious diseases are widely available today.
From cancer research to the treatment of rare diseases, a lot of modern-day medical challenges are being addressed through modern biotech endeavours. This article will discuss what some of these challenges are, along with how advancements in the biotech field may help tackle them more effectively in the near future.
Reversal of Senescence
Ageing is a natural process that all humans undergo, but it comes with a long-lasting effect on the human body’s functionalities. Apart from the onset of grey hair and wrinkles, ageing can also result in medical conditions caused by the gradual degradation of the cells and tissues. Cellular senescence, a phenomenon that comes with ageing, is often cited as a contributor to age-related pathologies such as tissue degeneration, inflammatory diseases, and cancer. When your cells become senescent, they stop dividing entirely, thus affecting vital functions such as regeneration and tissue repair. Eventually, this cessation of cell division can lead to diseases such as osteoarthritis.
As such, many biotech investors are interested in the study of senescence and how to potentially halt or reverse it. Currently, biotech firms are looking into targeting senescent cells and neutralising senescence-associated secretory phenotypes (SASPs) to prevent degradation and disease progression. In some Asian countries like Singapore, investors are allocating substantial funds for research into age reversal. Such efforts may even lead to the development of dual-purpose therapeutics, which involve eliminating specific diseases while also introducing anti-ageing properties. Biotech initiatives to aid longevity research continue to be a lucrative prospect, with investors funnelling as much as USD 400 million into research and development (R&D) for age reversal.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world. While there is technically no cure for the many types of cancers as of date, it is possible to halt the progression of many cancers through early detection and treatment.
To help address the challenges of treating cancer, some biotech firms are zooming in on cell mutations and the human genome in general. Essentially, the goal is to develop targeted therapies for different types of cancers. Rather than provide a one-size-fits-all solution, researchers must establish flexible baselines that will help determine the right mix of therapies suitable for the unique needs of each oncology patient.
To date, some novel concepts have been introduced in the field of biotech-driven cancer research. One example is that of bioengineered engager molecules that pair with T-cells to target the proteins in tumour cells, thus preventing the progression of cancer. While cancer is still generally considered a serious illness, advancements in biotech may soon hold the key to nipping it in the bud as quickly as possible.
Degenerative brain diseases are considered to be critical since they also affect some of the body’s most crucial functions such as breathing, talking, balance, movement, and heart activity. The UN also approximates that one in six people around the world suffer from neurological disorders, making them a pressing concern for the medical field.
One of the biotech solutions being presented for neurological conditions is gene therapy. Similar to targeting senescent or cancer cells, it’s possible to target specific genes related to neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Given the increasing demand for therapies designed for neurological disorders, there’s no question that biotech initiatives aimed at treating neurodegenerative diseases should be a worthy endeavour. Other notable initiatives include efforts to use embryonic cells to restore cognitive abilities and minimise seizures from traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
HIV and AIDS
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the causative agent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is known to affect approximately 38.4 million people worldwide. Like cancer, HIV can be treated, but not cured. Generally, those affected with HIV and AIDS need antiretroviral pills, which they must take throughout their lives.
To address this challenge, researchers are embarking on preliminary studies to determine the efficiency of gene modification techniques in combating HIV. Such efforts include the development of a “single-injection gene therapy,” which would eliminate the need for HIV patients to regularly take antiretroviral medicines. Another method being explored is the implementation of small molecules to inhibit the replication of HIV RNA.
Overall, these biotech initiatives are crucial to minimising the critical effects of HIV and AIDS, which are also necessary to elevate the discourse and eliminate the stigma surrounding those affected.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), rare diseases are those that affect a miniscule portion of the overall population. In the US, diseases are considered rare if they affect less than 200,000 people. In the European Union (EU), the number pertains to less than 1 in 2,000 people. Currently, the number of rare diseases that have been identified in the human population is roughly 7,000.
Most of the time, rare diseases can cause frustration to patients and caregivers due to the lack of approved treatments. That said, the biotech industry is hard at work to innovate the way rare diseases are being treated and mitigated. Gene therapy, for example, is currently being presented as a potential technique for treating rare diseases. The ability to replace or correct genetic mutations that cause such diseases has big implications for developing groundbreaking therapies, which could significantly benefit those with limited options for treatment.
How Biotech is Helping Tackle the Medical World’s Biggest Hurdles
Even though medicine and healthcare have advanced exponentially over the past hundred years, there are still some frontiers that need to be crossed. From finding the cure to cancer to reversing neurodegenerative ailments, there are a handful of medical pipe dreams that the biotech industry is making small steps to achieve.
With biotech largely revolving around the body’s infinitesimal components and their behaviours, there’s no doubt about the potential of this field to deliver medical solutions that will change the world. Ultimately, this potential to control and re-engineer man’s genetic makeup and cell activity should give us hope that some frustratingly irreversible conditions will soon be a thing of the past.