In the latest episode of Genetics Unzipped, presenter Dr Kat Arney discovers how researchers have used genetic engineering to turn genes into lifesaving drugs such as insulin for people with diabetes, and monoclonal antibodies that are used to treat autoimmune conditions, cancer and infectious diseases like COVID-19.
The invention of insulin
We hear how the quest to create synthetic human insulin led to the founding of the world’s first major biotech company, Genentech, and a lifesaving treatment for people with diabetes.
But while the development of synthetic insulin was driven by the need to move away from animal sources of the hormone, the need for the company’s next target – human growth hormone (HGH) – was even more pressing.
For many years, people needing growth hormone therapy had been treated using HGH extracted from the pituitary glands of human corpses. But this practice had unwittingly also been transmitting the infectious prions that cause Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, or CJD.
The development of synthetic HGH was a vital development in providing life-changing treatment for children without the risk of infection.
The antibody revolution
Kat also explores the development of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies, from the early work by César Milstein and Georges Köhler showing that they could make immortal immune cells capable of producing one type of highly specific antibody through to Greg Winter’s work on humanised monoclonal antibodies and phage display.
Today, 570 antibody therapies have entered clinical trials and 79 have been approved by the FDA, providing targeted therapies for diseases including various cancers, autoimmune, metabolic and infectious diseases. Monoclonal antibodies have even been trialled against COVID-19 – most famously the monoclonal antibody cocktail made by Regeneron, which was used to treat former US President Donald Trump.
The market for monoclonal antibody therapies is expected to be around $138.6 billion dollars by 2024, making them one of the most promising areas of medicine, both now and in the future.
Finally, Kat touches on recent developments in DNA synthesis, which are promising to open up biological engineering and unleash a new era of drug discovery, where we can rapidly produce and screen libraries of potential new synthetic drugs, including antibodies, hormones, enzymes, proteins, DNA-based therapies and vaccines.
Listen to the Genetics Unzipped podcast
Listen to the whole episode and find show notes and a full transcript at GeneticsUnzipped.com.
Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media. Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK