Biologics vs Traditional Prescription Drugs: How Biologics Are Being Used to Heal a Wide Range of Conditions From Eczema to Arthritis

Prescription medications have traditionally been manufactured using chemical substances. More and more, physicians are treating patients diagnosed with a wide range of conditions with a new class of drugs, called biologics or biologic medicine.

What is Biologic Medicine?

In contrast to traditional medications that are made using chemical compounds, biologics are made using living cells from humans, animals, organisms like bacteria, and even plants. The oldest example of a biologic is a vaccine. Vaccines contain a very small amount of certain molecules, called antigens, from harmful pathogens that can cause deadly diseases. When a vaccine is administered, these antigens help teach or train the body’s immune system to recognize and attack harmful pathogens, like viruses, in the case of infection. Insulin is another example of a biologic. Insulin used to be isolated from the pancreas of pigs and cows. It was then sterilized before given to patients. But today, scientists can also use bacteria to produce synthetic human insulin. 

How Are Biologics Made?

Manufacturing biologic medicine requires tissue or cells from living organisms. Scientists genetically modify these living cells to produce certain molecules, like proteins and enzymes, found in the human body that can interact with the immune system. 

How Do Biologics Work?

Biologic drugs work by targeting and affecting the function of specific cells or chemicals in the immune system. Each medication targets a different cell or chemical in the immune system, depending on the condition it treats. For example, biologic medicines used to treat rheumatoid arthritis (a condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissue and causes inflammation and damage of the joints) are used to suppress the immune system by targeting T-cells associated with inflammation and joint tissue damage.  

What Are the Benefits of Biologics?

Biologics work by targeting a specific component of the immune system. Traditional prescription medications of chemical origin circulate through the entire body, affecting multiple organ systems and causing a wide range of side effects. Most biologic medications do not cause systemic side effects. However, they do come with their own set of side effects. For example, some biologics suppress the immune system, which can increase one’s risk of certain infections, like tuberculosis and sepsis. 

How Are Biologic Medications Administered?

As of now, biologics are not administered orally and must be administered either via injection or intravenous infusion. The molecular size of biologics—that being much bigger than chemically-derived drugs like, for example, aspirin—does not allow them to pass through the intestinal walls and therefore be absorbed by the body. Biologics are also sensitive to the chemical conditions of the gastrointestinal system and can be destroyed before being absorbed by the body. 

The Future of Biologics

The development of biologics has increased dramatically in the past two decades. The majority of biologic medicines available today are used to treat people with autoimmune disease, systemic diseases like cancer, and rare genetic diseases. Researchers continue to search for biologics that can help treat patients with all kinds of conditions. Since most patients prefer to take medications orally, researchers also continue to find ways to make biologics that can be taken orally.