The biotechnology industry is booming, and experts predict it will reach more than $775 billion in value within the next four years. This growth is spurred not only by current events, including the COVID-19 pandemic, but also by increased financial support following promising tests of new medical treatments for a variety of illnesses. Three trends dominate the biotech industry today, each with exciting developments that advance the field.
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Emerging Biotechnology Trends in 2021
Unprecedented access to large amounts of data and effective means of analyzing them underscore the latest biotechnology trends, says Jared Auclair, director of biotechnology and bioinformatics at Northeastern. Here are some key ways in which biotechnology trends will impact our understanding of medicine and healthcare in 2021.
1. Monoclonal Antibodies and Biosimilars
Monoclonal antibodies are lab-grown antibodies designed to restore, enhance, or mimic an immune system response, particularly in cancer cells. They function in a variety of ways, from identifying cancer cells to delivering radiation to affected areas. While these antibodies have formed the basis of biotechnology for some time, they are now being modified in new ways.
“One thing antibodies are being used for now are Antibody-Drug Conjugates, or ADCs,” Auclair says. “Imagine a chemical warhead is attached to an antibody, which functions as the drug. The antibody itself is specific to an antigen that delivers that warhead to a specific location or cell. The drug can then be deployed to kill the infected or diseased cell.”
By combining these antibodies and drugs in new ways, it may soon be easier to manage conditions that require expensive medication or lack effective treatments.
Biosimilars, another foundational element of biotech, have also been modified to meet changing medical needs. Creating a biological drug, which uses living organisms as ingredients, with the exact same makeup and effects as another biological drug is a complex process. Biosimilars deliver the same effects as an existing drug but use slightly different compositions than name brands, making immunotherapy and targeted therapy drugs more accessible. Generic drugs, though comparable, have the exact same composition as an existing, synthetic-based medication.
In India, a biosimilar originally intended to treat psoriasis has been repurposed and approved for the treatment of patients with moderate to severe acute respiratory distress syndrome resulting from COVID-19.
2. Cell and Gene Therapies
Cell and gene therapies, which manipulate human cells and genomes, respectively, to create customized drugs, are booming areas of biotechnology.
“A large portion of this industry is going towards personalized medicine,” Auclair says.
The FDA approved the first-ever gene therapy, a drug called Kymriah, in 2017. The medication uses a patient’s own white blood cells to treat acute lymphatic leukemia. Yescarta, another gene therapy approved in the same year, has provided at least partial remission for 72 percent of patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in clinical trials.
Since then, this area of biotechnology has doubled in growth. Experts predict a steady pace going forward as more companies move into late-stage manufacturing after promising outcomes in oncology, regenerative medicine, and rare diseases. Despite challenges related to capacity and the ability to scale production, FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb expects the agency to confer 10 to 20 gene- and cell-therapy related approvals each year through 2025 as biotech continues to fast-track new projects.
3. Vaccine Development
The search for a COVID-19 vaccine has forced the scientific community to consider new ways of developing vaccines. Government agencies and biopharmaceutical companies have entered into unprecedented public-private partnerships to fund research and pool resources in this area, furthering our understanding of vaccines as a whole in the process.
“The traditional vaccines that are on the market are based on similar science and similar technologies,” Auclair says. “What kind of new vaccines can we develop that are not based on attenuated viruses or other things we’ve done in the past? How does that go?”
Moderna entered Phase 3 of development for a vaccine that uses mRNA from the novel coronavirus—instead of a weaker version of the virus itself—to elicit an immune response. These vaccines are based on decades of previous research on how cells can translate mRNA into proteins that can fight disease.
Vaccines based in mRNA can be quickly moved into final testing phases, and Moderna is on pace to deliver up to 1 billion doses of the vaccine per year beginning in 2021. The research and development process behind this vaccine, and other COVID-related vaccines, can provide valuable information about how to create more effective vaccines in the future.
Keeping Up with Biotech Trends at Northeastern
Northeastern’s biotechnology programs and facilities adapt to trends as quickly as possible, Auclair says. The university already offers classes in cell and gene therapy, with more on the way, and the curriculum of its master’s in biotechnology program focuses extensively on biosimilars and monoclonal antibodies. The master’s program will soon include more courses on vaccines as well, with shorter trainings on the subject available through Northeastern’s Biopharmaceutical Analysis Training Laboratory.
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