The biotechnology revolution, fueled by the sequencing of the human genome, will affect every aspect of the way we live, from our environment, to what we eat, to how we diagnose and treat illness.
What is Biotechnology
Already, biotechnology has improved the quality of our lives. In the next decade, as the pace of advances in biotechnology accelerates, the scope and volume of biotechnology’s effects will be even greater.
What is biotechnology? In its broadest definition, biotechnology is the use of advances in molecular biology for applications in human and animal health, agriculture, the environment, and specialty biochemical manufacturing. In the next century, the major driving force for biotechnology will be the strategic use of genomic information. With the completion of the human genome project, the subsequent understanding of what these genes code for and how the products of these genes relate and interact, will completely transform the practice of medicine
It is now possible to translate discoveries in bacteria, yeast, or fruit flies into important therapeutic targets for drug discovery. DNA chip diagnostics, cell and gene therapy, and tissue engineering will emerge over the next ten years as important biotechnology products.
Biotechnology– the interdisciplinary frontier between biology, engineering, medicine, and plant science– is also the scene of exciting scientific and technological developments in many areas of science. Important areas of development include.
The history of the organ-on-a-chip
Over 70% of drugs that appear promising in animal studies fail when tested in humans. Designed to replicate organs and tissue in the human body Organ-on-a-chip technology could radically reduce animal testing and the time and cost of drug discovery and development.
First conceived as an idea in 1876, Organ-on-a-chips have taken many years to materialize. 2022 marks the first year data collected from the technology has been used to gain regulatory authorization for launching human trials with a drug. Getting to this point has involved the coming together of many different players from different disciplines. Still, in its infancy, Organ-on-a-chip has had a fascinating journey and is just at the beginning of showing its potential.
The history of messenger RNA (mRNA)
Billions of patients have now received mRNA COVID vaccines. First found in 1956, scientists took many decades to find a method to use mRNA for medical applications. This development was not a smooth linear process and involved many different players from multiple disciplines, a number of whom struggled to gain recognition and funding for their work.
Once dismissed as just a pipedream, the power of mRNA for vaccines is only the beginning of where the molecule could prove useful to patients. To find out more about the long journey mRNA has taken to reach the clinic and its potential future.
Raising awareness of antimicrobial resistance
Now that the world’s attention is focused on combating COVID-19, it is easy to forget another significant threat to public health and the global economy – the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Yet, the problem has not disappeared. Indeed, the pandemic could be accelerating it. We are delighted to announce the launch of a new exhibition which explores the history of antimicrobial resistance and scientists’ efforts to overcome the problem.
The COVID-19 pandemic
As part of our mission to educate we cover the COVID-19 pandemic focusing on the diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments being developed across the world and the scientists at the front of the battle to identify and treat the virus. Deep dives into the resources include Long-COVID – The nightmare that won’t end – A researcher’s first-hand perspective. Other resources cover the Transcript of the interview with Professor Andrew Ward.
Women in biotechnology
We are pleased to publish some reflections from women about what they see as the most important change for women in the life sciences and healthcare sector in recent years. This is part of an ongoing public engagement project to champion the contributions of women in the biomedical sciences.
.Find out about some of the hidden women at the cutting edge of science by visiting our profiles of some of the women who have helped shape biotechnology. Click here to see a timeline of initiatives implemented to promote gender equality in the biomedical sciences.
Conquering Hepatitis B:
A revolution for public health and vaccine safety
Hepatitis B is a major global health problem. The tenth leading cause of death globally, the disease is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) that attacks the liver. More infectious than HIV, the virus globally claims the lives of more than 900,000 people each year. Spread by exposure to infected blood and bodily fluids, the virus infects at least one in three people worldwide at some point in their lives.
Hepatitis B is particularly worrying because its carriers initially show no symptoms but it can cause serious damage to the liver which results in deaths from cirrhosis or liver cancer many years later. The group most at risk of becoming infected and transmitting the virus are infants. The only thing that can break the cycle of hepatitis B infection is vaccination. First introduced in the early 1980s, this vaccine has dramatically reduced the incidence of hepatitis B.
The vaccine is a fascinating history on several accounts. Not only was it the first vaccine to protect against cancer, it was also the first one to be made with just a subunit of a virus which opened up a new chapter for improving the safety of vaccines overall.
This day in biotechnology
Visit our science section to explore some of the most important sciences behind biotechnology and medicine including Nanopore sequencing. Taking 25 years to materialize, nanopore sequencing is now one of the most promising technologies for deciphering the code of DNA and RNA. Available in portable devices, nanopore sequencing has revolutionized the process of DNA and RNA sequencing. Importantly, it enables sequencing to be carried out in remote areas with limited resources.
This makes it possible to detect, track and halt the spread of pathogens responsible for infectious disease outbreaks in real-time on the ground for the first time. The benefits of nanopore sequencing were first seen in the case of the Ebola and Zika viruses and today it is a critical tool for COVID-19. A quarter of all the world’s SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes have been sequenced with nanopore devices.
Nanopore sequencing also provides a means to rapidly identify and monitor bacteria resistant to antibiotics, another rising public health threat. Combating infectious diseases is just the start of the multiple possibilities nanopore sequencing offers.
Ever wanted to tread in the footsteps of scientists to understand how they come up with new ideas in the laboratory and translate these into new products for patients? You can do this by visiting our special exhibitions section. Using photographs, laboratory notebooks, and other historical sources, these exhibitions bring to life some of this process. See for yourself some of the ups and downs the scientists have faced along the way.
The history of antimicrobial resistance and scientists’ struggles to overcome the problem
Rising antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the most pressing public health and global economic challenges the world faces today alongside COVID-19. If left unchecked, AMR could wipe out many of the advances medicine has made in recent times.
One of the most disturbing aspects of AMR today is that many common infections and minor injuries, like a simple paper cut to the finger or a scratch, could become potentially fatal. What is AMR? Where does it come from and how have scientists tried to combat the problem over time? What new tools are now on the horizon that could help improve the use of antibiotics and help preserve their efficacy for the future?
Seattle Genetics: A case study of drug development
Drug discovery and development is a very complex process. Getting a drug to market can take years, even decades, and involves many scientific, financial, and regulatory hurdles. This makes drug discovery and development a highly risky and long and expensive business. Many drugs that appear promising in the laboratory fall by the wayside in clinical trials because they prove unsafe or ineffective.
A great deal of money can thus be invested by a company in a drug candidate with little return. In this exhibition, we follow the complex process of drug discovery and development through the story of Seattle Genetics, a small American biotechnology company set up in 1998 to develop cancer therapeutics. As the exhibition reveals, the success of drug development is not only reliant on scientific and clinical progress. Securing enough funding and the right partners is also essential to the process.
A Healthcare Revolution in the Making: The Story of César Milstein and Monoclonal Antibodies
Today monoclonal antibodies are indispensable to medicine. They are not only used as therapeutics, comprising six out of ten of the best-selling drugs in the world but are also critical to unraveling the pathways of disease and integral components of diagnostic tests. Yet, the story of how these unsung microscopic heroes came into the world and helped change healthcare remains largely untold.
The journey of monoclonal antibodies all started when an Argentinian émigré called César Milstein arrived at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, the same laboratory where Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. This exhibition tells the story of how Milstein came to develop monoclonal antibodies and demonstrated their clinical application for the first time.
The life story of a monoclonal antibody
A third of all new medicines introduced into the world today are monoclonal antibodies, many of which go on to become blockbuster drugs. This exhibition is the story of how one specific monoclonal antibody, the oldest humanized monoclonal antibody created with therapeutic potential, moved from the laboratory bench to the clinic and the impact it has had on patients’ lives.
The antibody, which originated from the Cambridge PATHology family of antibodies, started life in 1979 not as a therapeutic, but as a laboratory tool for understanding the immune system. Within a short time, however, the antibody, YTH66.9, was being used to improve the success of bone marrow transplants and as a treatment for leukemia, lymphoma, vasculitis, organ transplants, and multiple sclerosis. Highlighting the many twists and turns that this monoclonal antibody took over time, this exhibition explores the multitude of actors and events involved in the making of a biotechnology drug.
The path to DNA sequencing: The life and work of Frederick Sanger
One of the most important tools in biotechnology and medicine today is DNA sequencing, invented by Frederick Sanger, a British biochemist. This exhibition follows the journey of Sanger starting in the 1940s when he began looking for ways to decipher the composition of proteins through to his development of DNA sequencing in the 1970s.
Come see the time-consuming and painstaking steps Sanger went through to perfect the DNA sequencing technique and the many different areas of medicine where DNA sequencing is now being applied all the way from the Human Genome Project through to cancer and antimicrobial resistance.
The untold story of monoclonal antibodies
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the media has been filled with stories about the use of antibodies for both diagnosing and treating the disease. Both the antibody tests and therapeutics have appeared out of nowhere.
They rest on a major breakthrough that was made in Britain in 1975 by César Milstein and Georges Köhler at the Laboratory of Medicine in Cambridge, which provided a means to produce endless quantities of what are known as monoclonal antibodies. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984, Milstein and Köhler’s invention marked a major turning point as before then there was no means to produce standardized antibodies.
Derived from naturally occurring proteins made by the body’s immune system to recognize and fight foreign invaders, like bacteria and viruses, monoclonal antibodies have had a phenomenally far-reaching effect on our society and daily life.
Though unfamiliar to most non-scientists, these microscopic protein molecules are everywhere, quietly shaping our lives and healthcare. They have radically changed understandings of the pathways of disease, enabling faster, cheaper, and more accurate clinical diagnostic testing. More than 100 monoclonal antibody drugs have also been approved in the past 30 years.
How Milstein and Köhler developed the first monoclonal antibodies and they went on to become one of medicine’s most important tools is recounted by Lara Marks in her book ‘The Lock and Key of Medicine.
In August 2020 the book was listed in The Guardian by Mark Honigsbaum as among the top best books on medical breakthroughs alongside that James Watson’s memoir ‘The Double Helix’ and Rebecca Skloot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’.
Possibly never in recent history have advances in biotechnology generated so much public interest than during the unfolding of the COVID-19 epidemic. The unprecedented pace at which vaccines have been developed and diagnostic tests rolled out could not have been achieved without the many different biological tools that have emerged since the 1970s. But what are these tools, what are their origins and where are they helping improve patients’ lives? This is the subject of ‘Engineering Health: How Biotechnology Changed Medicine’ edited by ‘Lara Marks’.
As the book makes clear, applying new biotechnologies in medicine is not without great challenges. As medicines shift from small organic molecules to large, complex structures, such as therapeutic proteins, drugs become difficult to make, administer and regulate. Among the technologies examined in the book are genetic engineering, DNA sequencing, monoclonal antibodies, stem cells, gene therapy, cancer immunotherapy, and the most recent newcomer – synthetic biology.
The book will intrigue anyone interested in medicine and how we have been and may continue to, engineer better health for ourselves. Such changes have major implications for how and where drugs are manufactured, the cost of medicine, and the ethics of how far society is prepared to go to combat disease.
Book review: Michael Gross, ‘The book has turned out surprisingly readable, with Marks’ own chapters being very accessible and lay-friendly. The book impresses with 19th and 20th-century historical connections to things that are topical today.’ Chemistry & Industry Magazine, Issue 05, 2018.
Celebrating the first publication of monoclonal antibodies
It is now over 40 years since César Milstein and Georges Kohler published their technique for producing monoclonal antibodies. To celebrate the occasion we invite you to watch the film Un Fuegito about the life and work of Milstein, produced by Ana Fraile, Pulpofilms.
The film, which you can find on vimeo.com, has been released to help raise funds for a new educational film to promote a greater understanding of monoclonal antibodies and how they have transformed the lives of millions of patients across the world.
The Debate: Genome editing
Scientists have recently begun to adopt a new technique for genetic engineering, called CRISPR-Cas9, in a wide number of fields ranging from agriculture to medicine. Part of its attraction is that it permits genetic engineering on an unprecedented scale and at a very low cost. The technique is already being used in a variety of fields.
But because of its potential to modify DNA in human embryos, it has prompted calls for a public debate about where the technology should be applied. Researchers working with WhatIsBiotechnology.org recently ran a pilot survey to gather people’s views on the new technology. Dr. Lara Marks, Managing Editor of WhatisBiotechnology.org and historian of medicine, and Dr. Silvia Camporesi, a bioethicist at King’s College London, led the project. Some 567 people contributed to the debate. An analysis of their contributions is available on this page.
We are developing a number of new and exciting projects with highly talented partners and collaborators. This includes one commissioned by the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) to capture its pioneering work to provide large-scale and rapid whole-genome virus sequencing to Public Health Agencies, the NHS centers, and the government.
Set up and funded with remarkable speed, COG-UK has led the world in terms of the volume of samples sequenced, which enabled it to both track the movement of the pandemic and pick up more transmissible and worrying variants. One of the most important components of the COG-history project is to carry out interviews with the Consortium’s members to capture and archive their memories before they get lost.