Biological therapy: uses, risks and benefits

Biological therapy is a line of treatment that has been on the rise since the 90s. It is used to treat various types of diseases and its prospect is very promising, although it has risks.

Last update: June 10, 2021

When talking about biological therapy, reference is made to any type of treatment derived from living organisms. These include microorganisms, animals, and humans. Non-biological drugs are made through chemical processes that do not involve living things.

Biological therapy uses the immune system to stimulate and enhance the body's immune response. This allows the advancement processes of some pathologies to be stopped, controlled or suppressed.

Also, biological therapy can enhance the destructive power of the immune system and prevent the spread of cancer cells to some degree. In general terms, it modifies the course of a disease and, in many cases, increases the effectiveness of non-biological treatments.

What biotherapeutic products are there?

Biological therapy stimulates the defenses of the immune system.

Today there is a wide variety of biotherapeutic products. Traditionally they have been classified into three large groups: vaccines, blood components and proteins.

Vaccines

Vaccines are the most traditional form of biological therapy and they represent one of the great milestones of medicine. Its function is to protect against infectious organisms. The types of vaccine are as follows:

  • Live attenuated vaccines. They use the microorganism, but in a weakened form, to generate immunity.
  • Toxoid vaccines. They contain a toxin produced by a microorganism and block the toxic effects of the infection.
  • Biosynthetic vaccines. They contain synthetic substances that are similar to parts of the real microorganism.

Components of blood

The component of blood most used in biological therapy is the infusion of hemocrocytes. It is given to people who have experienced severe blood loss.

Blood plasma is also widely used in some treatments. Specifically, the proteins it contains are used: albumin, globulins and fibrinogen. Among the globulins, the most used are immunoglobulins, in particular IgG purified to attack bacteria and viruses.

You might also be interested: What are antigens and antibodies?

Protein

In this case, natural proteins called cytokines are used.. These participate in the regulation of the immune system and protect against infections. They are used in cases of immunodeficiency, infections and cancer.

Monoclonal Antibodies are also included within this group. These are the result of a process in which a protein is modified and the human body is carried so that it produces antibodies against a certain microorganism.

At present, these types of biotherapeutic products are classified into three subgroups:

  • Recombinant proteins. They are obtained in the laboratory from a cloned gene. An example is insulin.
  • Monoclonal or polyclonal antibodies. Monoclonals are clones that are obtained from a single stem cell. Polyclonal ones are obtained from a mixture of several cells.
  • Fusion proteins. They are obtained from the union of two or more genes that are originally separated.

In what fields of medicine is biological therapy used?

There is a wide range of pathologies that can be treated with biological therapy. In particular, this type of treatment has been used for autoimmune diseases, cancer and some genetic diseases.

This is a very dynamic field within which a large number of investigations are currently being carried out. For the moment, Its applications in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and cancer are very prominent. Let's see.

Use in rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that immune cells mistakenly attack the body itself and cause chronic inflammation in the joints. Sometimes this affects other organs and other areas of the body as well.

Biological therapy, in this case, disrupts immune system signals that are associated with inflammation. In this way, it prevents the progression of the disease, since it is this inflammatory process that ultimately causes damage to the joints.

This therapy has proven to be more effective than other conventional ones. This is because it targets specific elements, causing inflammation, and manages to interfere with the process.

Use in cancer

The function of the immune system is to fight foreign or invading agents that are present in the body. Under normal conditions, it should identify cancer cells and fight them. However, this does not always happen and therefore cancer appears.

The goal of biological therapy in cancer is get the immune system to recognize cancer cells and thereby destroy them. In this case, what is done is injecting substances to stimulate the cells of the immune system and make it work against cancer cells.

It is also possible to train immune cells in a laboratory to attack cancer cells and then reintroduce them into the body. In addition, certain signals sent by cancer cells can be blocked and that suppress the immune system.

Side Effects and Risks of Biological Therapy

Biological therapy can cause mild or severe secondary symptoms.

Some people do not have any side effects from biological therapy. Others have mild symptoms and there are also cases of serious effects. Also, side effects depend on the type of therapy administered.

In general terms, biological therapy can cause these effects:

  • Fever.
  • Cold.
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Acne.
  • Exhausted.

Serious side effects include the following conditions:

  • Severe infections. Sometimes a latent infection kicks in.
  • Hepatic injury. A person with liver disease, in general, is not a candidate for biological therapy.
  • Reduced ability to make new blood cells.
  • Allergic reaction from mild to severe.

It is sometimes pointed out that biological therapy may increase the risk of certain types of cancer. However, there is not enough evidence that this actually occurs. More research is still needed to corroborate this.

Biological therapy: only under medical recommendation

All medical treatment involves some level of risk and biological therapy is no exception. For the same, the use of biotherapeutic products must be preceded by a complete medical history and a thorough evaluation.

Some people should not start biological therapy, since they present conditions that can lead to a serious adverse effect. During this type of treatment you should not receive some types of vaccines. It is important to follow the treatment strictly and inform the doctor of any developments.

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