Biotechnology is providing people with new solutions to health problems. The question is: will people use them?

Biotechnology has been used in medicine for centuries. Examples include the use of leeches to draw blood or improve blood flow and maggots to remove rotten flesh.

Improving human health has driven the development of many of our new biotechnologies. Recent advances in understanding disease genetics and stem cell biology may provide new ways to diagnose or treat disease.

Stem cells

A stem cell is a special type of cell that has the potential to become any type of body cell. Stem cells are found in brain, liver, bone marrow, embryonic tissue and cord blood. Any of these could be sources for stem cell transplants. In the future, new organs or tissues could be grown from an individual’s own stem cells.

Do you think stem cell therapy is a bird-brain idea? Some stem cells have shown potential for treating diseases of the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

Bone marrow transplants

Bone marrow transplants are the first example of a successful stem cell therapy and have been used to treat people with life threatening blood diseases since the 1950s.

Find out more about the history of bone marrow transplants.

Probiotics and beneficial bacteria

Bacteria are associated with dirt and disease, but they are also necessary for our survival. We normally have about 10 times as many bacterial cells than human cells in our bodies, most of these are found on the skin or in the digestive tract.

Modern biotechnologies are encouraging the growth of ‘good’ bacteria and using them to prevent ‘bad’ bacteria getting established in our body.

See this video conference and find out how adding good bacteria to a new throat lozenge is helping to kill bad bacteria and treat sore throats.

Vaccines and cancer treatment

New Zealand biotechnologists are researching causes and treatments for many types of cancer. Scientists at the Malaghan Institute are working hard to find a new way of treating skin cancer or melanoma using a vaccine. Find out more about the melanoma research being undertaken in New Zealand.

While melanoma is largely caused by environmental exposure to UV in sunlight, other cancers have a genetic cause.

Disease genetics

Genes that are associated with disease can now be detected throughout our lives – and even before we are born. Genetic screening of sperm, eggs or embryos can help to identify genes that increase risk of developing some diseases. This type of screening can allow parents to select embryos for optimum genetic health, but what implications will this technology have in the future? To find out more, read the article, Designer babies – fact or fiction?

Published 15 November 2007