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  • Writer's pictureDr. Christine Senn, PhD

Making Sense of Biotech and Our Immune Systems

Hello! Welcome to SennSays! Why am I in a car? This is a great question. You might recognize Riding in Cars with Researchers' Dr. Jeffrey Kingsley with me today. I'm going to be interviewing him about how to explain biotech to the public in a way they can understand it. And this is an honor of Global Biotech Week. Dr. Kingsley, ready to go for a ride?

Dr. Jeff Kingsley

Let's do it.

Dr. Christine Senn Well, I think the first thing we should do is why don't you tell us what biotech is? Dr. Jeff Kingsley Biotech is a generic word that talks about types of medicine in broad categories. You've got pharmaceuticals, biotech, and medical devices. Pharmaceuticals are chemicals that you can create in a chemistry lab. Aspirin is a pharmaceutical; you can create it in a beaker. I'm making that up. Then we have medical devices. You understand what they are. It's a device, like a pacemaker, for example, or joint replacement.

Biotechnology is drugs that we create from other biologic things. Vaccines are a great example. Historically vaccines were grown in eggs, right? You're developing this drug, but the drug requires something alive to be able to create. The monoclonal antibodies are all biotechnology. So, biotech is the class of medicines that we create from other biological material. Dr. Christine Senn I think there’s something about the word biological – even though I think of it as completely natural – makes people nervous. So how do you start to explain this? Dr. Jeff Kingsley Yeah, biotech sounds scary for some reason or another. And the way we named these drugs makes them insanely scarier. No one can even pronounce the names of most biotech drugs. The generic names of monoclonal antibodies are insane. So, they do sound scary. But one of the things that I do is I make it relatable for the patient. For example, being able to say to the patient: “You know the vaccines that you and I both got when we were little kids? Those are all actually biotechnology. Those vaccines were the traditional vaccine technology, where those viruses were inactivated and then were grown. We got the mass vaccine and therefore we became immune to polio.” And so, I help the patient understand that they actually got biotech drugs when they were little boys and girls. Many times, I'll use rheumatoid arthritis as an example. I’ll ask the patient if they know anybody who has rheumatoid arthritis. There's a drug called Humira that's been around for decades. It’s a monoclonal antibody. It's a biotech drug that has been approved for decades and has been game-changing for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Today we're using biotechnology for psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, eczema, asthma, COPD, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. I truly am getting patients to realize that even if they might not be familiar with biotech, it's been around for a very long time. And they just didn't know. Dr. Christine Senn That's really great. Maybe this is more of a philosophical question, but why do you think it is that these drugs sound scarier to people that if you just said, “Oh, here's a pill for cholesterol” or whatever? Because they shouldn’t be.

Dr. Jeff Kingsley I don't think the media has cared about differentiating, so it's easier just simply to talk about pharma. And if you're going to talk about pharma, you're going to talk about pharmaceuticals, but actually they've been talking about biologics, but calling them pharmaceuticals. And so the media has taken shortcuts and talked about everything as pharmaceuticals. Because of this, when we are talking to patients about biologics, it’s very new to the patient. They've never heard that before. They don’t realize this is not something brand new; it’s actually been around for a very long time. Dr. Christine Senn Yeah. Wow. Is there anything else you think people should know about biotech while we're talking? Dr. Jeff Kingsley Yeah. The neat thing about a lot of the biologics is that your body is used to them already. Monoclonal antibodies are a great example. The new messenger RNA vaccine technology is a great example. When we're creating a pharmaceutical, we're literally making something that your body has never seen before. They’re a foreign substance. In contrast, when we're making a monoclonal antibody, that's a biologic. Monoclonal antibodies are antibodies, and our bodies are making them in us right now.

Our bodies are filled with antibodies. We have antibodies to smallpox. We've got antibodies to polio. We've got antibodies to the common cold that we got last week or last month or six months ago. We are literally filled with antibodies. And so it's actually a technology that works better with the body because it's not all that foreign to the body. It's more in alignment with what our bodies were made to do. The mRNA technology that we're using for vaccines, now we're literally just giving a patient a snippet of genetic material to say, “Hey, if you make this, you're going to make antibodies so that if you ever encounter this virus, you won't get infected or you'll get infected, but you won't be affected very badly.” And so from that standpoint, biologics, frankly, should be less scary than pharmaceuticals. Dr. Christine Senn This pertains to other things as well, right? It's a small stressor on your body, so your body gets stronger. That's the same thing as exercise or anything else. You have a little bit of a stress and your body actually gets stronger from it. Dr. Jeff Kingsley Absolutely true. There was a phrase going around 10, 15 years ago, the old paradigm used to be “small compounds for large populations.” Aspirin is a small compound. If you look at it, the chemical structure, its molecular weight, it's a very small compound for large populations. Everyone should take 81 milligrams of aspirin, right? Small compound, large population.

The new paradigm is large compounds for small populations. Proteins, biologics are very large compounds. They're much heavier. They're bigger structures. The interesting thing about biologics is that we can nuance them to very small populations. We're getting into that era of genetic medicine where we're creating these compounds and this is going to work very well in you, but maybe not me. And so we can create these very tailored compounds to somebody's very specific genetic profile.

We're going to end up in an age where biologics become the norm. When I started doing research, most of our research was pharmaceutical by far, and then it became 50/50. Today, most of our research is biologic. Pharmaceutical is the smaller amount of research that we do. I think that trend is going to continue because, with biologics, we're able to be so much more precise about what we're treating and who we're treating. Dr. Christine Senn Fantastic. Well, I'm certainly very excited about Global Biotech Week. How about you? Dr. Jeff Kingsley I love Global Biotech. Dr. Christine Senn Should be all year ‘round. Right?

Dr. Jeff Kingsley

I agree.

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