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A lease of life


MENTION the word ``biotechnology'' and the average person gets a little nervous and apprehensive because biotechnology is not an easy industry to define with all its ``hocus pocus'' of scientific jargon. Biotechnology is now beginning to hit its stride t o offer new and exciting therapies that no longer just treat a symptom, but can possibly provide long-term therapeutic benefits and maybe some day a cure for some diseases.

Defining biotechnology

Biotechnology may be defined to include ``any technique that uses living organisms (or parts of organisms) to make or modify products, to improve plants and animals, or to develop micro-organisms for specific use.'' This is not the definition of a singul ar industry but, rather, a set of tools that have already demonstrated their utility in a vast and still broadening array of applications ranging from healthcare, to food and feed production, biomass and other energy sources, bio-remediation and environm ental protection.

It involves the application of genetic engineering and DNA technology, to produce therapeutic and medical diagnostic products and processes. Unlike traditional drug companies, which develop chemically-derived products, biotechnology companies use natural ly occurring processes to find answers to today's healthcare challenges.

The reagents and methods that permit the manipulation of physiological processes at the molecular level arose from fundamental biological research, largely through a base of support administered by the National Institutes of Health. Therefore, it is not surprising that the first applications of biotechnology appeared in the biomedical arena.

History of biotechnology

Although still considered a nascent industry, the biotechnology industry has an interesting history. In the US, where the industry is better developed than in the rest of the world, it was dominated in its early years by a handful of US firms including A mgen Inc, Biogen Inc and Genentech Inc. During the late 1980s these were the only companies that appeared to have products which had a market and were earning substantial profits.

The bull market in biotechnology stocks reached a peak in 1991 and was largely driven by the blockbuster success of two drugs _ Epogen and Neupogen _ produced by one company, Amgen. Following Amgen's success, analysts began to praise nearly every company in the biotechnology sector which caused their stock prices to climb.

In 1992 and 1993, biotechnology stocks took a turn for the worse. Concerns about the then US President, Bill Clinton's proposed healthcare reforms and the failure of a few high-profile biotechnology drugs sent the sector into a three-year slump.

The defeat of the Clinton administration's healthcare reform effort and no prospects for major revision, except perhaps in medicare, helped the biotech industry rebound in 1995.

A renewed belief in biotech research providing some of the remedies for rising healthcare costs also helped the industry's resurgence. Doubt gave way to a mood of optimism culminating in a renewed interest in the potential of biotechnology stocks once ag ain. The resurgence of biotechnology is being led by the nearing completion of the Human Genome Project.

The completion of the project, a global initiative to map and sequence the whole human genome by 2003, will be the driving force of modern medicine in the new millennium.

The Clinton administration, through the National Health Security Act, encouraged the development of new ways to provide high-quality healthcare at affordable cost. The administration also saw biotechnology as an area that requires firm, long-term commitm ent of Federal support. The most direct route to saving money currently expended through treatment of illness and lost workdays is to avoid getting sick in the first place through effective disease prevention. It is also desirable to actually cure diseas es rather than simply ameliorate symptoms, or to adopt less expensive methods, such as early diagnosis or pharmaceutical alternatives to surgery and others that permit shorter hospital stays and enhance the quality of life.

Applications

Biotechnology makes it possible to do things that previously lay in the realm of science fiction: Manipulate genes, grow human tissues and organs outside the body, make endless supplies of drugs extracted from rare plants, destroy polluting chemicals. Ho wever, the road from experimental technology to reliable product is not always very smooth. Of all the new technologies, the most significant is the ability to manipulate the building block of life itself: To add or remove genes from cells and to transpl ant genes from one organism to another for the treatment of disease, known as gene therapy (although gene therapy _ how genes are manipulated, packaged and delivered to the patient _ was originally conceived as a way to treat diseases that are wholly gen etic in origin, such as haemophilia).

Biotechnology has potentially far wider applications, for example, in the treatment of cancer, infectious diseases such as hepatitis and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), cardiovascular diseases, and perhaps even neuro-degenerative diseases suc h as Alzheimer's. There is potential for biotechnology to develop bio-artificial skin, cartilage, blood, and whole organs such as the pancreas and the liver. The need for tissues and organs for transplants far outstrips the supply available from donors. These techniques, which are collectively referred to as tissue engineering, may offer a solution to this perennial problem.

Biotechnology uses computers in molecular modelling and drug design. Computer applications serve as interfaces with laboratory equipment, search engines for gene and protein sequences, protein structure prediction and maintenance of vast database resourc es. Biotechnology depends on computer applications.

(To be continued)

Contributed by Orleans Healthcare

orleans_healthcare@usa.net

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