Prior to modern biotechnology, most drugs and medical treatments were limited to what existed already in nature or could be concocted by the local pharmacist. These drugs were often ineffective or had side effects that were worse than the condition itself. Biotechnology’s role in medicine is to develop medicines that are more effective and produce fewer side effects.
Until the 1980s, diabetic patients were treated with insulin extracted from the pancreas of cows and pigs. Although effective, this proved problematic, as certain patients had allergic reactions to the non-human insulin. The discovery of restriction enzymes in 1970 allowed researchers to remove DNA from one organism and insert it into another. Using this new recombinant DNA technology, we are now able to insert the gene for human insulin into E. coli bacteria and produce it on a large scale. Biotechnology has provided a much more effective way to manufacture this essential drug.
Cancer treatment remains one of the greatest challenges to modern medicine. Conventional treatments consist of bombarding the body with chemo-therapeutics that do not discriminate between cancerous cells and healthy cells. The hope is that the treatment destroys the rapidly dividing cancer cells before it damages vital organs. There will be 1.5 million new cases of cancer this year and many of these patients can be helped by advances in biotechnology such as the development of monoclonal antibodies. These antibodies act like the “magic bullets”: they are engineered to look for a specific cell type, so they hunt down and attack only cancer cells. There has been success in the treatment of an aggressive form of breast cancer with Genentech’s monoclonal antibody, Herceptin.
Other biotechnology products that are in use or in the development pipeline include treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and renal disease. Some of these drugs are being researched and produced locally in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.