Biotech researchers have made some of the most phenomenal discoveries and advancements in human medicine over the past half-century, from breakthrough medications for infectious and viral diseases to sequencing the human genome to innovative immunotherapy treatments for cancer.
Here is a look at how biotech is fighting five of the most problematic diseases on the planet today.
In 2016, researchers from the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD sequenced the entire human genome of Pneumocystis, the organism that causes pneumonia. Even in our developed country, pneumonia hospitalizes over 1 million people and kills 50,000 each year.
Studying the genome has helped researchers better understand the organism’s resistance to the immune system, which will help with culturing Pneumocystis and developing innovative treatments.
The outbreak of Ebola on American soil in 2014 brought widespread awareness to the deadly disease that had previously been contained to portions of West Africa. Since then, major pharmaceutical companies have worked on Ebola vaccines, including Tekmira, Sarepta Therapeutics, GlaxoSmithKline, and Merck.
While not a disease most Americans worry about, rabies does cause over 59,000 deaths per year worldwide. The disease is passed from animal hosts — typically wild raccoons, skunks, or bats or domestic animals like cats and dogs — to humans through bites and scratches. Rabies affects the central nervous system and causes inflammation of the brain.
German biotech company, CureVac, published Phase I trial data of their mRNA rabies vaccine in 2017, a promising sign for the future of mRNA-based vaccines.
Cancer research has earned major funding and media attention for decades, but the recent immunotherapy innovations have been truly amazing.
In 2017, Novartis earned the first FDA approval for a CAR-T cell therapy with their drug, Kymriah™. CAR-T therapies work by collecting the patient’s cells, genetically engineering them to identify antigens specific to the tumor, then placing the cells back into the patient to fight the cancer.
While CAR-T cell therapies are still in their infancy, researchers continue to develop and improve other immunotherapies.
5. Mad Cow Disease
Mad cow disease gained attention in the 1990s when it killed more than 80 people in the UK and eventually made its way to the US in 2003. It is linked to a fatal brain disease in humans called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).
In 2017, researchers from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases found abnormal prion proteins in the skin of people with vCJD, giving hope that other prion diseases, which can lay dormant for years with no symptoms, could be detected earlier.
Read more about the role of biotech in eradicating these diseases here.