What is biotechnology?
Everyone’s talking about biotechnology, but it can mean many different things. Biotechnology has its hand in drugs, detergents, as well as in bread and beer. It is a classic cross-section technology, drawing not only on such disciplines as biology and biochemistry, but also encompassing physics, chemistry, engineering, materials science and computer science. At the heart of biotechnology is the application of science and technology to living organisms.
Red biotechnology: Medicine
Medical biotechnology is also known as red biotechnology, and deals with the development of new diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. This field has changed enormously over the past decades. A greatly significant boost came in 1953 with the discovery of the molecular structure of the genetic molecule DNA by the American scientist James Watson and Francis Crick. This eventually led to the decoding of the human genome in 2000.
This genetic information is the blueprint for all life processes. Knowledge about these blueprints is extremely important in order to uncover the mechanisms of diseases. The more the researchers know which genes are responsible for the production of certain proteins, the better able they are to develop targeted medicines. An understanding of the genome (the sum of all genes) and the proteome (the sum of all proteins) is a fundamental premise for the work of biotechnologists. Thus, genome research and proteome research are among the most important platform technologies of biotechnology.
From symptomes to the source of diseases
In particular for common illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or cancer, scientists have discovered many new approaches for more effective treatments with fewer side effects, or even cures, and all based on the latest findings in the field. Biotechnology can open up entirely new and previously unimaginable opportunities. In Germany, more than 200 biotechnology companies are working on the development of new therapies and diagnostics. Cancer represents one of the most commonly researched illnesses.
As a result, medicine is one of biotechnology’s central areas of application. However, it is applied not only in the development of new medical approaches. Even the manufacturing of medicines is increasingly carried out using biotechnology. Over 200 of the drugs that are currently licensed in Germany are manufactured in specially developed bioreactors. In these reactors, microorganisms or animal cells are used to produce the desired drug. This technique is used in particular for protein-based medicines such as antibodies or hormones. Because of their three-dimensional form, these types of active biomolecules - which are targeted in their therapeutic mode of action - can only be produced by living organisms or cells. Chemically replicating the required substance does not function in such cases. For this reason, and based on the findings of genome research, biotechnologists have developed bioreactors. Thereby, cells can be genetically altered so that they specifically produce the desired protein. Today, medication is produced in such a way for millions of patients suffering from diabetes. The insulin used in this therapy is produced in bacterial and mammalian cells.
The importance of medicines produced in this manner is also statistically supported: According to the German Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies (VFA), with a contribution of 4 billion euros, biotechnologically produced drugs accounted for 15% of the total turnover of the pharmaceutical industry in Germany in 2007. For example, biotech vaccines are widely used for the prevention of diseases, or recombinant proteins applied in the treatment of chronic, severe and rare diseases.