Dr Lara Marks presents an overview of the pervasive field of Biotechnology, and the goal of her informative website WhatIsBiotechnology.org.
Everyday when a person visits a doctor or goes to a hospital, their healthcare is invariably shaped by biotechnology. Whether it be to diagnose their condition or the treatment given, biotechnology lies at the heart of the process.
At its most basic level biotechnology refers to the controlled and deliberate manipulation of living organisms and biological processes. In one form or another biotechnology has been used for many different purposes for thousands of years. Since prehistoric times humans have used yeast cells to raise bread dough and to ferment alcoholic drinks and bacteria cells to make cheeses and yoghurt as well as strong and productive animals and plants to breed stronger and more productive offspring. In more recent times, increasing knowledge about how to manipulate and control the functions of various cells and organisms, including genes, has given birth to a burgeoning number of products and technologies for combating human disease.
Biotechnology is one of the hot growth areas in medicine today. Between 2001 and 2012 global investment in research in medical biotechnology rose from £6.7bn to £66bn. Such work is helping to elucidate the molecular cause of disease and aiding the development of new diagnostic tools and more precisely targeted drugs.
Despite its importance relatively few people beyond the scientific community have much knowledge about biotechnology beyond what they learn from media headlines about embryonic stem cells and genetic testing. In 2013 I was inspired to address this issue by launching the website WhatIsBiotechnology.org. It tells the story of the people, places and technologies that have enabled biotechnology to transform healthcare. All the material on the website is designed for the lay reader.
The website grew out of my research for my book ‘The Lock and Key of Medicine: Monoclonal antibodies and the transformation of healthcare (http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300167733). Invisible to the naked eye, monoclonal antibodies (Mabs) are laboratory-produced antibodies derived from the millions of antibodies the body makes every day to fight foreign invaders. Since their development in 1975, Mabs have radically transformed understandings about the pathways of disease, paved the way to faster, cheaper, and more accurate diagnostic testing on a vast scale, and have opened up new forms of treatment for over fifty major diseases.
The website is supported by organisations like the Medical Research Council and has a number of different components, including an ever-growing searchable timeline and profiles of people and technologies. Online exhibitions are also a central component. Using photographs and original historical documents these exhibitions bring to life what it is like to be a scientist working in the laboratory and the many trials and tribulations involved in transforming laboratory work into products to meet medical needs. This is told together with the testimonies from patients. Visitors to the site come from around the world, and include the general public, school children, policy-makers, industry experts and scientists.