Biotechnology: Best line of defence against disease?

Andrey Zarur
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Andrey Zarur predicts that through biotechnology we’ll be able to cure diseases within months

In the 14th century almost one third of the world’s population was wiped out in 53 years by the infamous “Black Death.” Bubonic plague, the medical name of the Black Death, originated in China around 1347. From there it spread throughout Europe, where it claimed almost 100 million lives, representing somewhere between 40% and 60% of the continent’s population. Europe was devastated not only economically but also socially, morally and politically for more than a century.

It would be unthinkable that a pandemic such as the Black Death would affect our 21st century world in such dramatic ways. And yet, worldwide pandemics have been commonplace in every century, including the influenza pandemic of 1918, which infected 500 million people worldwide and claimed about 50 million lives. Additionally, the threat of new antigens – viruses or bacteria – becoming widespread and resistant to today’s medicines is real and serious.

Biotechnology represents literally the only and last line of defence against new, resistant infectious micro-organisms.

In 1885 Louis Pasteur and Emile Roux used a primitive form of biotechnology to produce the first vaccine: the two French scientists isolated and weakened the virus responsible for rabies by allowing it to dry for five days. They used the attenuated virus to treat a nine-year-old boy, Joseph Meister, who had been mauled by a rabid dog. Joseph became the first human to be successfully vaccinated and successfully treated for rabies.

Since that historic occasion, biotechnology has been responsible for the identification of a huge number of disease causes and the development of the corresponding cures. Biotechnology is responsible for the development of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1943. It was through biotechnology that scientists were first able to isolate specific human proteins, such as insulin, and succeeded in creating an artificial (or recombinant) version for treatment of diabetes. And more recently, a number of previously lethal orphan diseases, such as Fabri’s, Gaucher’s and Pompei’s, found cures through biotechnology discovery and drug development, saving millions of lives.

Biotechnology promises that one day we will be able to identify pathogens or causes of disease and rapidly and effectively develop cures against them. This promise, which has already been partially fulfilled by the examples noted above, is closer than ever to realization. Current advances in detection, discovery, development and manufacturing technologies make it possible that within a decade or two scientists will be able to develop vaccines against infections within weeks, and cures against diseases within months. In addition, biotechnology also provides the means for authorities and regulators to test each proposed therapy and ensure their safety and efficacy.

Biotechnology is indeed our last and best line of defence against disease.

Author: Andrey Zarur is Member of the Board, Boston Museum of Science; Managing Partner, Kodiak Venture Partners; Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan School of Management; Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology

Image: A researcher on a biotech lab works on devoloping a treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy disease (DMD) REUTERS/Jerry Lampen



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