You are here: MEDICA Portal. Part III: Biotechnology.
Molecules, Technique and Therapies (Part 1)
The concept is always the same: Scientists observe biological processes, analyze mechanisms and substances involved and try to mimic, produce, use the products with the help of current technologies. Quite a colourful affair since biotechnology is classified into white, blue or green categories depending upon its use for industrial processes, in the sea or agriculture.
Experts use the phrase red biotechnology when medical issues are being addressed and talk about products and technologies such as proteins, antibodies, enzymes, stem cells, cell and tissue cultures or gene therapy. One of the most famous examples that is being produced with biotechnological techniques is the hormone insulin. Many decades the hormones was extracted from the pancreas of cattle and pigs with the side effect of having to kill many animals and causing immune responses of diabetics due to the animal origin of insulin. When scientists discovered the gene for insulin in humans thanks to genetic engineering they were capable of transferring it into bacteria or yeast resulting in the production of human insulin by microorganisms.
Medicine from the deep of the sea
Wanting to combat diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, rheumatism or Alzheimer's with biotechnology demands the discovery of new substances from nature. That is way scientists started to take a close look at the world's oceans. „Life is much more abundant at sea than ashore, biodiversity is much higher, bacteria and viruses are plentiful“, Professor Werner Müller from the University of Mainz, Germany explains. The reason: liquids are denser than air creating more living space and more evolutionary potential. „Sea creatures are more versatile“, the molecular biologist adds. Since they virtually live in abeyance they can divert into many imaginable appearances. Sea animals only need little skeletal support.
Sponges, for example, sit around on cliffs, rocks and reefs all over the world, filter water all day long through their soft bodies and comprise family members from only a few millimeters up to three meters in size. "Up to six billion bacteria are being filtered through a large sponge's body", Müller explains. This fact calls for a very efficient immune system that combats myriads of bugs. And indeed, sponges produce chemical substances that have not been heard of ashore in addition to repellents from microorganisms living in symbiosis with sponges in the need of defense against toxic bacteria and fungi.
Therefore, sponges offer plenty of potential as a biotech resource. Research in blue biotechnology is advancing in Germany in order to produce medicine made by the sea. The results so far: A drug that inhibits herpes viruses, a painkiller and potential agents against cancer.
Biochips in order to suss out diseases
However, biotechnological procedures are not just important in the development of new drugs. They also help in the diagnosis of diseases with biochips being one of the great advancements. A small plate not larger than a fingernail serves as the platform for accomplishing a few dozen tests simultaneously. So called gene chips assist with the detection of DNA and RNA fragments, protein chips fulfill the same purpose with proteins and help to learn more about a patient's problems.
A current example is a new chip that helps in the diagnosis of Morbus Wilson. Hartmut Schmidt works at the University of Münster in Germany and wants to more easily detect this hereditary disease. „An effective therapy for Morbus Wilson exists that enables patients to live without any restraints“, the director of Experimental Transplantation and Hepatology says. „The disease needs to be diagnosed in an early stage, though. Otherwise those affected are going to die.“ Usually between the age of 12 and 16. Morbus Wilson is a mutation and affects copper metabolism: The body is not able to get rid off copper leading to an accumulation of the metal in liver cells which are destroyed subsequently.
Fluorescence as the chip language
Until recently it has been quite difficult and also dangerous to diagnose Morbus Wilson since samples had to be taken from the liver increasing the risk of bleedings. After that a variety of tests had to take place. In contrary: A simple blood sample would suffice when detecting the illness with a gene chip. The development of such a chip requires a lot of genetic information, though. Knowledge that has been collected by Schmidt: „We have plenty of information about Morbus Wilson that others do not have.“ Stored in a data base comprising 1,730 DNA samples from patients from all around the globe - from Germany to China, Iran and Canada.
This data base has been the basis for identifying about 200 genetic traits that make up the docking stations on the gene chip. „If you apply a patient sample to the chip it starts to fluoresce when the docking stations score a hit“, Schmidt explains. A software registers the signal matrix and assesses whether Morbus Wilson is exsitent or not. That works for patients all around the world. „Our chip is a worldwide chip“, says Schmidt. This is important, since mutations connected to Morbus Wilson differ between countries and continents – even between Germany and Poland.
- Part 1: Molecules, Technique and Therapies
- Part 2: Monoclonal antibodies - specific attack on the bad ones