If you want to make a real impact in the healthcare field and the lives of patients, there may be no better place to land than in the field of biotherapy. Biotherapy has infused healthcare with solutions to some of biology’s most astounding problems and given hope to patients from all walks of life.
Biotherapy uses biological material from living organisms (such as genes and cells), rather than synthesized material, to treat diseases by activating the immune system. The types of biotherapy used in modern healthcare include immunotherapy, gene therapy, and cell therapy. It is quickly becoming the primary form of treatment for some of the world’s most challenging diseases, including cancer.
Every day, contributions to biotherapy come from a wide range of healthcare professionals including scientists and researchers, nurses, doctors, bioengineers, and pharmacists. Learn more about biotherapy in healthcare—including how to break into this rapidly growing field and what career options are out there for you.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to fight cancer. It can help healthy cells identify and attack cancer cells and drive the body’s production of cancer-fighting cells.
What Does It Treat?
Immunotherapy is an evolving and promising treatment for cancer. It is being used to treat a widening variety of cancers including bladder, brain, breast, ovarian, colon, kidney, liver, lung, and skin cancers, along with leukemia and lymphoma.
Immunotherapy can also be used to suppress or regulate the immune system when the body’s reaction may be dangerous, including autoimmune diseases, organ transplants, and certain viruses. It can also help in suppressing symptoms of allergies.
The primary benefit of immunotherapy is that it manipulates the body’s natural processes to treat complicated diseases like cancer. While surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy may still be used in conjunction with immunotherapy, some patients may not have to undergo more invasive therapies thanks to immunotherapy.
How and Why Does Immunotherapy Work?
In some cancers, treatment is tricky because cancer grows from the body’s tissue. The immune system doesn’t recognize the cancer cells as invaders, so the cells are allowed to grow. By introducing immunotherapy, the immune system is activated and taught how to target and eradicate the cancer cells.
Biological Response Modifiers
Immunotherapy treatments often focus on biological response modifiers (BRM), which the body uses to regulate immune system responses. BRMs are naturally occurring in the body, but they can also be synthesized in a lab and introduced into the body to enhance an immune response or suppress it.
In cancer, artificially adding BRMs tells the immune system that the cancer cells are something to eliminate, and it kicks into gear to destroy them. If the body is attacking its healthy cells, which sometimes happens because of the cancer cells’ similarity to healthy cells, then introducing different synthetic BRMs can suppressthe body’s immune response when necessary.
Managing and manipulating immune responses is one of the critical aspects of many biotherapy treatments. Patients may be treated with immunotherapy along with other methods for maximum effect.
Who Is Making an Impact?
Because immunotherapy is a wide-ranging field, you’ll find that immunotherapy jobs exist in many sectors, from laboratory research to direct patient care. Careers working in the immunotherapy field and making an impact include:
- Medical doctors with oncology specialty
- Nurse oncologists
- Hematology doctors and nurses
- Cancer researchers
- Cancer coders
- Biology professors
These professionals, along with other crucial frontline medical workers, contribute vital expertise and skills to the growing arsenal of immunotherapy treatments in the fight against cancer.
Gene therapy is an emerging experimental healthcare field that seeks to treat diseases at their genetic source by manipulating specific genes in a patient’s cells to combat or inactivate serious medical conditions
What Does It Treat?
Certain diseases have their roots in human genes—whether the defects are hereditary, acquired, or caused by mutation or malfunction. Gene therapy is the process of modifying or manipulating those genes to treat diseases at the source, instead of just addressing the symptoms.
Because gene therapy is a relatively new healthcare field, the FDA has only approved a few treatment products, though many others are working through research phases or clinical trials. Of the approved treatments, two of them are for targeting cancers, and one is for replacing a mutated gene that causes vision loss.
As the field evolves, gene therapy may be able to treat genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis and severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID) syndrome. The applications against cancer cells will likely also expand because it uses the body’s genetic material and can be quicker and less invasive than other treatments.
How and Why Does Gene Therapy Work?
Gene therapy works either by adding new genes (ex vivo) or modifying existing ones in the patient’s body (in vivo). Within those two categories, various methods can be used for the delivery of DNA, RNA, or protein strands.
Virus and Bacterial Introduction
Viruses, which are naturally designed to inject genetic material into cells, can be modified for therapeutic purposes instead of disease infection. Viral vectors are the most common ex vivo delivery system of modified genetic material. Other methods may use bacteria to introduce the new genes, directly or through circular plasmid DNA strands.
Gene editing is a form of in vivo gene therapy used to disrupt or repair harmful gene expressions. It can be achieved by taking some of the patient’s cells, modifying the target genes, and returning the tissue to the body to reincorporate and spread the modified genes throughout. But even this method often uses a viral vector for delivery.
Who Is Making an Impact?
Because gene therapy is still mostly experimental, most of the professionals in the field are scientists and researchers. But the field is increasingly relevant for oncologists and support staff, and its influence is sure to grow as the FDA tests and approves more gene therapy methods for public healthcare applications.
Cell therapy is a form of biotherapy in which stem cells are introduced into the patient’s body to regenerate damaged tissue or repair targeted cells. It can restore healthy function to an otherwise deteriorating organ, regrow nerve and brain cells, and boost the immune system’s ability to fight disease.
What Does It Treat?
Because of its versatility, cell therapy has applications across the healthcare field.
Cell therapy can treat deadly neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s that are otherwise irreversible. Lifesaving cardiac stem cells may help prevent heart failure. And cellular therapy can also be effective for treating dangerous hormonal dysfunctions like diabetes and cellular mutations that cause cancer.
Along with saving lives, cell therapy can also help with pain management, especially for sports-related injuries. And stem cells can be used for tissue regeneration in patients with damage from radiation treatments and chemotherapy.
As an evolving healthcare technology with widespread applications, cellular therapy seems to be limited only by the imagination and ingenuity of researchers in the field.
How and Why Does Cell Therapy Work?
Stem cells are general-purpose cells that the body adapts for specification within organs and other systems. Stem cells form the basis of nerve cells, blood cells, cardiac cells, and other crucial functional components of the body.
Cell therapy manipulates stem cells to help the body regrow or repair functionality where other treatment methods are ineffective. In most cases, cell therapy uses biological material from the patient’s own body. This means that there is little risk of the body rejecting the treatment.
Cells are introduced into the body’s affected area to stimulate the regrowth of healthy tissue, providing a natural regeneration within the body. It allows a less painful alternative to invasive surgeries with less risk of further complications.
Different types of stem cells can be used in cellular therapy, including:
- Hematopoietic (blood-forming)
- Skeletal muscle
- Mesenchymal (bone marrow)
- Lymphocytes (immune system cells)
- Dendritic (nerve cells)
Who Is Making an Impact?
Cell therapy is an active form of treatment worldwide. Sports medicine doctors are finding new ways of using it for pain management and injury repair. Researchers at Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, and other major cancer treatment facilities are continually pushing innovation in cell therapy. Careers working in the cell therapy field and making an impact include:
- Sports medicine doctors and nurses
- Geriatric doctors and nurses
- Oncology doctors and nurses
- Laboratory researchers and assistants
- Postsecondary professors
Getting Started in Biotherapy
There has never been a better time to become involved in cutting edge healthcare sectors such as biotherapy. Employment in healthcare occupations is projected to grow 15% in the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With 2.4 million new jobs expected, healthcare is projected to add more jobs than any other sector.
Biotherapy will be a crucial focus for many of these jobs in the next decade. These innovations in treatment have opened up newly created positions in all biotherapy sectors, including research, development, technology, lab work, academia, healthcare administration, and administration of treatment.
While some people working in biotherapy careers will have advanced degrees in biochemistry, certifications and associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in a wide variety of fields can also lead to a successful career in biotherapy. Because immunotherapy has many applications and scientists have only just begun to understand it’s profound impact on medicine, there’s more than one way for you to get started in a groundbreaking immunotherapy career that will make a tremendous impact on people’s lives.
For more information on biotherapy, including applications and careers, visit the following resources:
- American Cancer Society: How Immunotherapy is Used to Treat Cancer This discussion from the American Cancer Society offers links to quickly identify how immunotherapy can be used to treat different specific cancers.
- Cancer.gov: Stem Cell Treatments in Cancer Treatment The federal government’s official cancer website offers a comprehensive look at how stem cells can be used to treat cancer.
- City of Hope Cancer Treatment Center: What is Biotherapy Treatment? from the cancer treatment facility City of Hope, which features a helpful video in understanding chemotherapy in particular.
- International Society for Stem Cell Research The ISSCR is an excellent place for news and updates in the world of stem cell research.
- MedlinePlus: What is Gene Therapy? MedlinePlus is a health-information federal government site that explains the basics of gene therapy and offers an in-depth discussion of gene therapy applications.
- National Institutes for Health: Applications of Bioinformatics in Cancer This research article, published in Cancer (Basel), focuses on bioinformatics and biostatistics in cancer research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
- Perelman School of Medicine Gene Therapy Program The gene therapy program at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the leading gene therapy programs in the nation, offers up-to-date news and happenings in the gene therapy front.
- Renova Therapeutics: Gene Therapy Renova Therapeutics gives details on the history and current events of gene therapy along with nuanced explanations of the benefits of this innovative form of biotherapy.
- University of Michigan, Michigan Medicine: Biotherapy for Cancer From the University of Michigan Health System, this guide offers assistance and guidance for those seeking to be a patient of biotherapy. It also offers useful and detailed information about how biotherapy works to treat cancer.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: What is Gene Therapy? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, offers simple explanations and helpful diagrams, along with more in-depth examples of gene therapy products.