Biotechnology tools and techniques open new research avenues for discovering how healthy bodies work and what goes wrong when problems arise. Knowing the molecular basis of health and disease leads to improved methods for treating and preventing diseases. In human health care, biotechnology products include quicker and more accurate diagnostic tests, therapies with fewer side effects and new and safer vaccines.
We can now detect many diseases and medical conditions more quickly and with greater accuracy because of new, biotechnology-based diagnostic tools. A familiar example of these benefits is the new generation of home pregnancy tests that provide more accurate results much earlier than previous tests. Tests for strep throat and many other infectious diseases provide results in minutes, enabling treatment to begin immediately, in contrast to the two- or three-day delay of previous tests.
Biotechnology also has created a wave of new genetic tests. Today there are almost 1,000 such tests, according to genetests.org. Many of those tests are for genetic diseases, while others test predisposition to disease. Emerging applications include tests to predict response to medicines and assist with nutritional planning.
Biotechnology has lowered the costs of diagnostics in many cases. A blood test developed through biotechnology measures low-density lipoprotein ("bad" cholesterol) in one test, without fasting. We now use biotechnology-based tests to diagnose certain cancers, such as prostate and ovarian cancer, by taking a blood sample, eliminating the need for invasive and costly surgery.
In addition to diagnostics that are cheaper, more accurate and quicker than previous tests, biotechnology is allowing us to diagnose diseases earlier in the disease process, which greatly improves a patient's prognosis. Proteomics researchers are discovering molecular markers that indicate incipient diseases before visible cell changes or disease symptoms appear. Soon physicians will have access to tests for detecting these biomarkers before the disease begins.
The wealth of genomics information now available will greatly assist doctors in early diagnosis of hereditary diseases, such as type I diabetes, cystic fibrosis, early-onset Alzheimer's Disease, and Parkinson's Disease-ailments that previously were detectable only after clinical symptoms appeared. Genetic tests will also identify patients with a predisposition to diseases, such as various cancers, osteoporosis, emphysema, type II diabetes and asthma, giving patients an opportunity to prevent the disease by avoiding triggers such as diet, smoking and other environmental factors.
Biotechnology-based diagnostic tests are not only altering disease diagnosis but also improving the way health care is provided. Many tests are portable, so physicians conduct the tests, interpret results and decide on treatment literally at the patient's bedside. In addition, because many of these diagnostic tests are based on color changes similar to a home pregnancy test, the results can be interpreted without technically trained personnel, expensive lab equipment or costly facilities, making them more available to poorer communities and people in developing countries.
Physicians will someday be able to immediately profile an infection being treated and, based on the results, choose the most effective antibiotics. But the human health benefits of biotechnology detection methodologies go beyond disease diagnosis. For example, biotechnology detection tests screen donated blood for the pathogens that cause AIDS and hepatitis.
Biotechnology will make possible improved versions of today's therapeutic regimes as well as innovative treatments that would not be possible without these new techniques. Biotechnology therapeutics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to date are used to treat many diseases, including leukemia and other cancers, anemia, cystic fibrosis, growth deficiency, rheumatoid arthritis, hemophilia, hepatitis, genital warts, and transplant rejection.
The therapies discussed below share a common foundation. All make use of biological substances and processes designed by nature. Some use the human body's own tools for fighting infections and correcting problems. Others are natural products of plants and animals. The large-scale manufacturing processes for producing therapeutic biological substances also rely on nature's molecular production mechanisms.
Here are just a few examples of the types of therapeutic advances biotechnology now makes feasible.
USING NATURAL PRODUCTS AS THERAPEUTICS
Many living organisms produce compounds that have therapeutic value for us. For example, many antibiotics are produced by naturally occurring microbes, and a number of medicines on the market, such as digitalis, are made by plants. Plant cell culture, recombinant DNA technology and cellular cloning now provide us with new ways to tap into natural diversity.