In the medical area biotechnology tools and techniques, developed in the last 50 years, have enabled scientists to discover the effects of antibiotics and drugs on human cells. They have also been useful in developing new methods of producing life-saving drugs. There are now over 100 biotech drugs on the market and a further 350 are in late-stage clinical trials. In this lesson we look at how biotechnology is moving into the production of tailor-made medicines.
What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology is the use of cellular and biomolecular processes to solve problems such as clarifying the location and function of genes and producing new products. Biotechnology uses the cell’s own manufacturing abilities to put biological molecules such as DNA and protein to beneficial use.
Cells as factories
Many new drugs are proteins that are produced by a variety of bacterial, yeast and mammalian cells. Cells are the building blocks of life. They contain all the information required for that cell to carry out a function. Groups of similar cells form tissues, which in turn form organs, each with specific tasks. Even though cells have a wide variety of functions, they all have the same basic design and operating process. It is these similarities that form the foundations of biotechnology.
How are biotechnology drugs produced?
The production of a new biotechnology drug often involves the isolation of DNA, its manipulation and then reintroduction of the modified DNA into host cells or model organisms. A host cell or organism will then produce (express) the protein coded for by this piece of DNA. The particular segment of DNA that codes a protein is called a gene. This process of introducing new DNA into a cell nucleus so that the cell will express a new protein is called genetic modification.
During the initial stage of drug design – the drug discovery process – the cell or bacterium to be used must be designed to express the protein that is required for the drug. A scientist must first isolate the gene that codes for this protein. This gene must then be precisely cut out and reintroduced into the DNA of the host cell. The process of reintroducing a gene into another piece of DNA is called gene splicing. The gene of interest from the original organism is, as it were, cut and pasted into the DNA of the host organism. The tools and procedures used to introduce the ‘foreign’ DNA into the new location within the cell nucleus are known asrecombinant DNA techniques, resulting in genetically modified organisms (GMOs).