Biotechnological innovations have already significantly transformed the way that diseases are monitored, diagnosed, and treated, and even more changes are on the way as scientists continue to develop new technologies. Here are nine examples of technologies that are making a major impact on the biomedical landscape, and changing the way we think about health and medicine.
Conventional drug treatments work by binding with the relevant proteins that are the underlying cause of a particular disease. However, new therapies are attempting to tackle the problem one step earlier by acting directly on the genes that produce the damaging protein in the first place. Various techniques and technologies seeking to achieve this goal are currently in different stages of research and development, including introducing a gene through a viral vector or using “zinc finger” proteins. These approaches have the potential to improve the treatment of not only hereditary diseases, but also cancer and infectious diseases that operate by exploiting genetic flaws.
The term for a set of short strands of RNA, microRNAs help diagnose and treat disease by either preventing messenger RNA from being translated into proteins, or by initiating messenger RNA breakdown. Many studies have linked the absence or presence of particular microRNAs in various cells with specific diseases, including cancer, metabolic disorders, viral infection, and inflammatory disease. MicroRNAs are of particular interest and benefit thanks to their ability to up-regulate or down-regulate whole networks of protein signaling rather than just one protein. This characteristic is especially important given that for certain diseases, most notably cancer and inflammatory disease, multiple proteins in one network are at play.
A range of implantable “smart” devices are making it possible to continuously monitor a patient’s health and, in certain cases, alert care providers to changing conditions within the body. Some devices may even be able to automatically respond to changes on their own. Possible examples include implantable glucose monitors that can release insulin when needed, or implantable chips for military personnel that can monitor sweat or blood for biomarkers that signal typical battlefield injuries or conditions such as shock, trauma, or fatigue.
New Vaccine Technology
While conventional vaccines use a weakened or killed virus as a pathogen, DNA vaccines make use of a piece of genetic code. This technology has the potential to lead to cheaper, safer vaccines that can be made quickly with easily scalable production methods for adding capacity when needed. This feature could prove important in the event of a major disease outbreak.
Broadly speaking, synthetic biology seeks to use DNA construction to create organisms that are specially designed to perform specific tasks. The potential benefit of such a process is the ability to produce a desired end product more efficiently than would be possible with traditional production methods, and without the need for significant inputs of energy or any output of toxic byproducts. Synthetic biology has clear potential applications in the field of medicine and drug development, but it is also relevant to many other industries and purposes, from biofuels development to industrial goods manufacturing processes depending on the potential value of such products to consumers.
Traditional biology reduces the human body and other biological systems into small, individual components, like genes and molecules, in order to better understand their functioning. Systems biology, on the other hand, seeks to understand how different networks of genes, RNA, protein, and metabolites interact with each other.. This is a highly data-intensive approach, which is increasingly possible today thanks to technological advances like the falling cost of genetic analysis, highly multiplexed proteomic arrays, and critical developments in bioinformatics and computing.
Whole Genome Scanning
As the cost of whole genome scanning is rapidly falling, broader use of the technology is becoming more and more widely used. This is helping to advance possibilities for personalized medicine, enable a greater understanding of genetic variation across individuals, and decipher the meaning of those regions of gene sequence of DNA that are not well understood at present.