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Genetic engineering and cloning are perhaps the most well-known biotechnology applications for the general public. However, the field of biotechnology encompasses much more than genetic manipulation, including applications in bioremediation, agriculture, and engineering as well as health and medicine.
The key behind biotechnology is the combination of biological and physical sciences in the discovery of new information and new solutions to biological and environmental issues. In human health and medicine, the two related fields of pharmacogenomics and drug development and production both owe a great deal to the emergence of new biotechnology applications and techniques.
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Pharmacogenomics (also called pharmacogenetics) is a relatively new field of study which deals with how genetic factors affect and influence the way people respond to drugs. It is hoped that this type of study will help scientists optimize many types of drugs, and perhaps even one day create entirely individualized treatment programs based on individual genetics.
Using this type of approach means scientists may be able to create tailor-made medicines with increased potency and efficiency, and decreased toxicity and side effects. Other possible benefits include an improved ability to calculate appropriate drug dosages, improvement in the process of drug discovery and development, and safer vaccines.
One of the most clinically relevant areas currently under study is how drugs can interact with unique human metabolisms to produce very different reactions. For the most part, well-known and well-characterized drugs work in much the same way in the majority of the population.
In a small percentage of people, however, some drugs may be metabolized in an entirely different way, producing what is called an adverse drug reaction. These unanticipated reactions cause more than 100,000 deaths and more than two million serious problems in the United States alone, every single year. Interestingly, studies have shown that drugs which cause adverse drug reactions tend to be those which are metabolized in the body by enzymes with polymorphisms (meaning that genetically different versions of the same enzyme exist).
Pharmacogenomics could, therefore, be used to identify people who may have adverse drug reactions, and also perhaps to identify why adverse reactions happen and modify drugs so that they are metabolized differently (thus preventing the adverse reaction).
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Drug Development and Production
The related areas of drug development and production are also important biotechnology applications. The production of many traditional, tried-and-tested drugs and vaccines has been made vastly more efficient with the application of biotechnology techniques that both speed up production and vastly increase the yield.
One example of this is the use of bacteria to generate large amounts of synthetic insulin for the treatment of people with Type 1 diabetes. Previously, insulin was extracted from the pancreas of cattle and pigs being killed for meat. However, the development of a genetically engineered bacteria—Escherichia coli— which could produce human insulin in large quantities demonstrated very effectively that biotechnology techniques could successfully improve the yield of drugs for human diseases.
While bacteria and yeast are most often used to produce large quantities of biopharmaceuticals (biological molecules used in the treatment or prevention of disease), a relatively new biotechnology application is the use of plants to produce such molecules.
The technique, which has been dubbed “pharming,” involves the insertion of genes coding for medically useful proteins into plants (or animals) which would not otherwise produce them. Growing and harvesting the plant crop then allows for the extraction of the protein, which can be purified and used. This technology is also known as transgenics, as it involves the insertion of genes from one species into the genome of another.
As with many genetic biotechnology applications, there is some controversy surrounding the development of transgenic plants and animals. Opponents of the practice fear that dangerous transgenic genetic material may somehow find its way into food supplies. However, proponents of such techniques say that controlling the flow of genetic material and preventing contamination is easily possible, and that the global demand for a biopharmaceutical could be met from only a few acres of a single crop species.