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The field of medicine is more complicated than you might think. It’s not just about diagnosing diseases and treating them, or healing injuries. It’s about figuring out how we tick on a cellular level and what goes wrong to cause these conditions. That’s where biotechnology comes in, and it has a lot to offer. What is the importance of biotechnology, and why does it matter to medicine?
What Is Biotechnology?
The dictionary defines biotechnology as “the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes.” In medical circles, this means using genetic manipulation to create things like antibiotics, hormones and other materials used in medicine. It’s similar to traditional technology. However, instead of using silicon and circuit boards, biotechnology’s medium is organic matter.
Scientists break biotechnology down into three distinct categories: medical, agricultural and industrial. Agricultural biotech focuses on creating things like pest-resistant crops and the creation of genetically modified foodstuffs, while industrial biotech produces biodegradable plastics and biofuels.
For now, we’ll focus on how researchers and scientists use biotechnology in medicine.
The Importance of Biotechnology in Medicine
Have you ever received a vaccine, taken antibiotics or known someone who uses artificial insulin to manage their diabetes? Then you already have a passing familiarity with medical biotechnology. This field has taken off in recent years, thanks to a better global understanding of how DNA works and how researchers can manipulate it. DNA sequencing lets us see the basic building blocks of everything. This includes everything from the human body, to the bacteria that inhabit it, and the viruses that make it sick.
Some bacteria and viruses have specific gene markers. New medications could target and destroy them, rather than flooding the body with a drug and hoping it reaches its destination. This is a smaller branch of biotechnology known as biopharmaceuticals.
Pharmacogenomics uses the patient’s genetics to choose the best treatment plan. As this field advances, medicine will stop being a-one-size-fits-all field. Then, doctors will be able to prescribe the medication or treatment that works best for a person’s body type, metabolism and genome.
We are seeing the beginning of the potential applications for biotechnology. In the next few decades, we may have targeted treatments for cancer without all the side effects of radiation and chemotherapy. We could have vaccines for the planet’s most dangerous viruses, or more efficient artificial insulin for diabetics or gene therapy to repair the patient’s pancreas. The possibilities are endless. We’re watching medical and biotechnology history happen every day.
Ethics in Biotechnology in Medicine
As Dr. Ian Malcolm put it in 1993’s “Jurassic Park,” “Your scientists were so preoccupied about whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Biotechnology is poised to change human health care more than any discovery we’ve made since surgeons figured out fewer patients died if they washed their hands before operations. The challenge is ensuring scientists conduct their research safely and ethically.
Biotechnology is a relatively new field, and as such is under constant and intense scrutiny from the press, academic peers and government agencies, as well as the public. Researchers in this field are, in essence, modifying living things to create treatments for current and future diseases. This raises a variety of ethical issues because, while these creatures aren’t sentient or sapient, they are alive. That means treating them humanely — no differently than a lab rat or test animal would be treated.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t continue to research biotechnology — just that it needs to be done ethically. Genetic manipulation could be the wave of the future when it comes to treating things like cancer. However, there’s a fine line between gene therapy for medical purposes and eugenics. Without ethics to guide them, the industry could easily shift to something more sinister. For example, scientists could create the perfect human for the highest bidder, rather than making the changes and discoveries we really need to help eliminate diseases for everyone.
The Future of Biotech in Medicine
We can’t underestimate the importance of biotechnology in medicine. This field is poised to change the way we treat everything from diabetes and genetic disorders to cancer. We use it to create the vaccines that protect us, the insulin that helps people with Type 1 diabetes live normal lives and the antibiotics that fight off bacterial infections. In the future, biotech could help us create genetic therapies to treat hereditary conditions, targeted drug cocktails to fight cancer and more.
Biotechnology is becoming an integral part of medicine. Plus, it will continue to shape the way we look at medical treatments long into the future. If you’ve never had mesels or gotten tetanus, you can thank a biotechnology researcher. It has helped make many people’s future brighter.