Summer 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the 1918 influenza (flu) pandemic, which infected an estimated 500 million people and killed at least 50 million, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While remembered most for its death toll, the pandemic also preceded a new era of medicine that is saving lives today.
The early 20th century saw the emergence of biotechnology and biopharmaceutical research focused on growing rather than chemically synthesizing some medications. The cutting-edge approach created “biologics,” medicines produced from living organisms, like the flu vaccine.
Following the flu pandemic, scientists around the world resolved to study the influenza virus and create treatments that could help prevent future outbreaks. It took almost two decades to isolate the virus and create a vaccine, which was first tested on soldiers during World War II.
The flu vaccine, like the smallpox vaccine before it, essentially was a weakened version of the virus. By injecting the vaccine into a patient, his or her immune system developed antibodies to fight off the full flu virus when encountered, thus preventing sickness.
Scientists discovered they could make the vaccine by injecting the influenza virus into chicken eggs, which provided the host cells needed to reproduce the virus. Researchers then weakened or deactivated and purified the virus so it could be used to stimulate antibody creation in patients without causing infection. Today, scientists rely on a similar process to develop annual flu shots.
The flu vaccine is just one example of biologics at work. Newer ones grown from proteins, polypeptides, and other biological molecules treat diseases such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, infectious diseases, and autoimmune and inflammatory disorders like arthritis and asthma.
Methods of producing these treatments have grown as well. While eggs still are used in the production of flu vaccines, many modern biologics are harvested from cells grown inside large temperature-controlled bioreactors. Biologics manufacturing processes are incredibly complex and costlier than chemically synthesized methods.
Biologics are worth the trouble and expensive manufacturing process because of the treatments’ enormous potential to treat disease by targeting molecular processes.
For example, biologics can target the overactive immune systems of patients with autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, reducing harmful chronic inflammation. They also can work in reverse. Many cancer cells can avoid detection by behaving like a damaged part of the body that requires repair, tricking the immune system into allowing them to spread unfettered. Some biologics can activate the immune system response against cancer, helping the body recognize and eliminate tumors.
Treatment of the flu and other diseases have come a long way since the pandemic of 1918. Ultimately, biologics are part of the emerging scientific field of precision medicine, which focuses on more effectively targeting the right treatments to the right patients at the right time—fundamentally changing the way we treat disease.
Learn more about biopharmaceutical innovation, including the breakthrough biologics developed to battle rheumatoid arthritis.