Biologics: A Revolutionary Drug Treatment

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There has been quite a bit of direct-to-consumer marketing for new classes of drugs to treat a variety of diseases from Crohn’s disease to rheumatoid arthritis. Commonly called biologics, these drugs represent a new approach to disease management. They treat numerous diseases and conditions, and are the most advanced therapies available.

Dr. Breelyn Wilky, a medical oncologist with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, explains the distinction: “Biologics are drugs that target and block a certain protein receptor on the surfaces of cells. These receptors are generally signaling too much, and producing the symptoms of the disease. We can now block those protein receptors with drugs. In contrast, chemotherapy damages all fast-growing cells. Biologics are targeted after one specific protein, sparing other cells. Side effects come when normal cells use the same protein and are affected by the treatment.”

Biologics are targeted treatments that, in addition to controlling cell signaling, may include modified human hormones, or cells that produce substances that suppress or activate components of the immune system. Immunotherapy is a type of biologic therapy that uses the body's immune system to fight disease, including cancer. The cells, antibodies, and organs of the immune system work to protect and defend the body against foreign invaders, including bacteria or viruses.

Already available biologics are revolutionizing cancer treatment, delaying, or reversing the course of immune-related conditions, and helping people with rare diseases. They have offered hope for many patients who previously had no effective treatment options for their condition.

Medical uses for biologic drugs include:
  • Several cancers
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
  • Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • Psoriasis
  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Heart attack
  • Systemic lupus
  • Age-related macular degeneration (ARMD)
  • Diabetic retinopathy
  • Prevention of pneumonia
  • Anemia
  • Chronic migraine
  • Hepatitis B
  • HPV prevention
  • Osteoporosis
  • Allergic asthma
  • Cystic fibrosis

What are the side effects of biologics?

Side effects of a biologic drug depend on the specific drug and method of administration, but are usually milder than other types of drugs such as chemotherapy.

Are biologics given by pill or IV?

Physicians administer most biologic drugs by injection or intravenously (IV), because they are proteins that are quickly digested and inactivated if given by mouth. They are effective by those routes but not really desirable for patients with chronic conditions, so work goes on to develop ways to make these drugs available to the system when taken by mouth. Other routes of delivery such as transdermal patches or intranasal, inhalation are under investigation. A few types of biologics are available by pill, but work goes on to make this the preferred route.

Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog. Based in St. Louis, MO, and Colorado, she writes medical articles and webpages for consumer publications and major university health centers.