Biotherapy & Healthcare: Careers & Degrees on the Cutting Edge

Gene and cell therapies are changing the way people learn and practice healthcare. Learn more about these groundbreaking technologies, the professionals working on the cutting edge with them, and how you can get involved. 

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Written By
Edumed Staff

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Last Updated: 02/05/2021
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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 

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
  • Bioengineers

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

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

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

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)
  • Pancreatic

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
  • Endocrinologists
  • Oncology doctors and nurses
  • Scientists
  • 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.

Biochemistry

Biochemistry combines the studies of biology and chemistry to look at how chemical processes act on living organisms. Biochemistry encompasses genetics, microbiology, forensics, plant science, and medicine. A bachelor’s degree in biochemistry can offer a promising start for someone looking for a career in biotherapy because it provides the basis for understanding the body’s systems.

  • With a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, you can work in a support capacity in biotherapy research or be admitted to medical school where you’ll learn how to care for patients using biotherapy treatments.
  • Advanced degrees in biochemistry can lead to developing new biotherapy techniques as a researcher or teaching the next generation of scientists as a biochemistry college professor.

Bioengineering

Bioengineering has its basis in biology, but it’s specifically focused on synthesizing and manipulating life processes — precisely what biotherapy does. A degree in bioengineering is perfect for someone hoping to start a career in biotherapy because the knowledge and experience are directly applicable to the field.

  • Like many science degrees, bioengineering can lead to advanced degrees like PhDs for research.
  • A degree in bioengineering can provide a foundation for further studies in public health, including looking at the broader effects of bioengineering and biotherapy and how medical ethics evolve to accommodate new healthcare technologies.

Bioinformatics

Bioinformatics uses computation and data to study existing and future work in biotherapy. The Human Genome Project (HGP), perhaps the most famous example of bioinformatics, has formed the basis for every gene therapy technique currently being studied. Bioinformatics examines real-world applications of healthcare technology.

  • An undergraduate degree in biology or health science with an advanced degree in bioinformatics could lead to a career in genome sequencing, analysis of gene mutation and variation, and other processes necessary to the research and development of biotherapy.
  • An undergraduate or graduate degree in bioinformatics could be relevant for public health applications and communicating data to the public.

Biology

Biology is the study of living organisms including their anatomy, origin, and behavior. An undergraduate biology degree can help pave the way for advanced degrees including MD and research opportunities. It can also offer a foundation of knowledge about cellular systems, genetics, and other elements of medicine that can aid in healthcare careers.

  • People with biology degrees can go on to medical school, advanced public health degrees, or clinical research PhD programs.
  • Biology majors may wish to launch a biotherapy career in a hospital or clinic as a technician or assistant, or another skill position that doesn’t require additional degrees.

Chemistry

Chemistry focuses on the molecular makeup of different substances. A degree in chemistry, especially organic chemistry, can lead to a number of careers in biotherapy. For example, you could become an academic researcher, making theoretical and practical advancements in the field of biotherapy, or an analytical chemist studying new forms of gene and cell therapy.

  • A chemistry degree can also lead to future careers in pharmacology or chemical engineering, where you could help develop vaccines leveraging immunotherapy for public health.
  • With an advanced chemistry degree, you could work as a biotechnologist and create artificial genes for therapy.

Medical Billing & Coding

Biotherapy isn’t just a field for people with advanced medical and healthcare degrees. While some biotherapy treatments are covered by insurance, others are still considered experimental and thus aren’t covered. It’s crucial for professional certified medical billers and coders to know and understand which treatments are covered by insurance and how the insurance companies should be billed for them.

  • Cancer registrars are coding professionals who collect data on cancer treatments and build and maintain cancer case registries. They record progress and recovery rates. With biotherapy becoming such a crucial part of cancer treatment, cancer registrars can ensure these treatments are being property recorded.
  • Certified hematology and oncology coders (CHONC) are certified to code cancer treatments and work to ensure that patients receive treatments and that doctors get paid for administering these treatments. They must be well-versed in the latest accepted biotherapy protocols for cancer treatments.

Nursing

Nurses are often involved in the patient-facing logistics of biotherapy. Especially as different types of biotherapy increase as treatment options, nurses will need to know what they’re working with. Oncology nurses, in particular, must be familiar with biotherapy technology and how it works.

  • Registered nurses and nurse practitioners may gain an interest in biotherapy and go on to earned advanced nursing degrees and certification, such as the Oncology Nursing Society’s chemotherapy immunotherapy certificate course; however, nursing degrees at any level will include studies in biotherapy and how it applies to practical healthcare.

Pharmacy

Immunotherapy and other biotherapies often go hand in hand with pharmacological solutions, so pharmacists can play a significant role in biotherapy treatments. As technologies and diseases continue to evolve, people working in every field of healthcare will be involved in biotherapy to some degree.

  • You don’t need an advanced degree in pharmacology to work in a pharmacy, but becoming a pharmacist requires a PharmD degree and certification.
  • Pharmacology studies can lead to academic research or careers in drug development.
  • Pharmacy technicians act as support staff for pharmacists and are often front-facing when it comes to interacting with biotherapy patients.

Public Health

Public health professionals may focus on epidemiology, policy and management, global or community health, or a specific topic within medicine, such as cancer. Because biotherapy intersects in some way with all of these sectors, public health degrees coupled with education and training in biotherapy could be a way to work in leadership and public policy when it comes to solving healthcare and medical issues with biotherapy.

  • Public health professionals in the government sector are responsible for creating and implementing healthcare protocols, including biotherapy uses, that benefit communities.
  • Public health professionals in the nonprofit sector, such as those working with organizations benefitting cancer research and treatment, can help bring awareness and acceptance to biotherapy by engaging the public and working with those affected by the disease. 

Resources

For more information on biotherapy, including applications and careers, visit the following resources: