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What is Biotherapy?

By Erin J. Hill
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Biotherapy refers to the use of various systems in the human body to combat diseases and other conditions. For example, immunotherapy implements the body’s immunological responses to fight serious diseases like cancer. Other examples include gene therapy and hormonal therapy. All use naturally occurring materials to treat disease.

Immunotherapy can work in two ways. The first method uses natural or synthetic materials to evoke an immune response or to enhance an already occurring response. One common example of this is the use of most vaccines. In a naturally occurring illness, such as polio, the human body is often unprepared to handle the onslaught of virus-infected cells. This results in the virus overtaking the body’s immune system, for a time or permanently, and causing serious damage or death to the individual. The second use works by halting the immune response in certain autoimmune conditions like lupus.

To evoke an immune response without these consequences, doctors are able to provide a weakened or killed version of the virus into the body. Since the virus is not strong enough to cause any real damage, the immune system is able to effectively destroy it by developing strong antibodies. If someone who has been given a vaccine is then exposed to the same illness, the body already has several antibodies in place to overtake it and kill it before it can cause symptoms. This form of biotherapy has saved millions of lives.

Hormonal methods of biotherapy involve the use of hormones that can naturally be found in the body, although some of the hormones used during therapy are synthetically made. In breast cancer patients, for example, the male hormone testosterone is often used to shrink or remove any tumors. Estrogen hormonal replacement therapy is also used in women with severe menopausal symptoms.

Gene therapy is another form of biotherapy in which healthy genes are extracted and then used to replace defective ones within the body. This is usually used in illnesses with single gene defects, such as sickle cell anemia. Although the process has been debated heavily, there has been success for some illnesses in using gene therapy. There are continued studies on the effectiveness and safety of gene therapy, primarily because the use of genetically modified materials in humans can have unwanted results.

In some rare cases, biotherapy may also refer to the use of living organisms and animals to cure disease. For example, leeches have been used to help patients with severe skin damage avoid amputation. When skin becomes damaged and dies, such as in severe frostbite or infection, leeches can be used to eat away the dead and diseased skin cells so that new skin can grow. Other examples of this type of biotherapy include using dogs to detect cancer with their strong sense of smell and using bee venom to cure certain neurological diseases.

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