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For millennia, sick people swallowed simple chemicals to get better. From botanical remedies used by people in ancient Mesopotamia, to penicillin, most common drugs are built from molecules with a few dozen atoms that are relatively easy to make.But a new class of medicines made from strings of complex proteins is now leading the charge against disease. They are called biologics, or biopharmaceuticals, and they comprise seven of the top ten best-selling drugs in 2013.

Their poster boy, the hormone insulin, was discovered in the pancreas a century ago. Its synthetic version is best known for treating diabetes, but drug companies have developed biologics that can be used to treat cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other disease. The group also includes many vaccines.

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Synthetic insulin was first made in the lab in the 1960s, and biologics have since become the fastest growing class of drugs. With a market size of about $100 billion, they account for a quarter of all spending on medicines. They are also hard to make.

That’s why in 2014 GE Healthcare Life Sciences acquired for $1 billion three subsidiaries of Thermo Fisher Scientific to boost its presence in the industry and round out its product portfolio (see video below). The $4 billion business (2013 revenues) is already making super-resolution microscopes that can observe how the HIV virus jumps between cells, and tools that help researchers hunt for genes in junk DNA.

“At GE Healthcare Life Sciences we help researchers with the discovery and manufacturing of new medicines and therapies, even going so far as building complete new factories for them,” says spokesman Conor McKechnie. “The acquisitions from Thermo Fisher allow us to be even better at helping drug companies bring new biologics to patients all around the world.”

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Microscopes from GE Healthcare Life Sciences help researchers come up with new treatment. Top picture: Metastatic breast cancer cells stained for actin (green), tubulin (red) and DNA (blue). Middle: Intestinal epithelial cells. Above: Ovarian cancer cell culture. Image credit: GE Healthcare Life Sciences 

Making biopharmaceuticals is not easy. Biotech companies do it by expressing snippets of DNA inside host cells. These cells live and multiply in special vessels called bioreactors.

“Because of that chemical and structural complexity, you need to invest a lot of effort in manufacturing,” says Nigel Darby, vice president of biotechnologies and chief technology officer at GE Healthcare Life Sciences. “Once you express your protein, it swims in a mixture of hundreds if not thousands of other proteins. Your second challenge is to find the incredibly complicated molecule and make it into a single, well-characterized pure product so that you get a safe drug.”

The GE unit makes the technologies that pull the right strands out of the protein soup, the “downstream” part of biopharmaceuticals production. The acquisitions from Thermo Fisher have helped it to boost its presence in the “upstream” part of the industry: developing and manufacturing the media and sera in which the cells grow, and aid with protein analysis and biomedical drug discovery.

“Traditionally, we’ve been absent from that upstream part of the market,” Darby says. “But over the last six years we’ve acquired a number of companies that work in bioreactor technology and cell culture. If you get everything right, offering the upstream and the downstream from a single technology portfolio will enable our customers to get their drugs to the patient in a quicker and more cost effective manner.”

imageA bank of GE bioreactors. Image credit: GE Healthcare Life Sciences

Darby says that biopharmaceuticals are “a very important class of molecules,” which is getting increasingly refined to hit precise targets in the body.

One new way to attack cancer has been antibody therapy, which mimics the immune system response and uses molecules precisely designed to hit cancer’s weak spots. “This is the story of increased refinement through molecular medicine, in terms of how you find targets, and the types of molecules you use to do it,” Darby says.

All of the largest pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, Amgen, GFK and Merck, are already working in the field, in addition to many small and medium companies. Several bestselling drugs like Abbvie’s Humira for rheumatoid arthritis and Roche’s Herceptin for breast cancer are biopharmaceuticals.

image GE Healthcare Life Sciences employs 10,000 people in the U.S. and Europe. In 2013, the unit generated $1 billion in cash from $4 billion in revenues. Image credit: GE Healthcare Life Sciences

Darby is quick to stress that we should not think of biopharmaceuticals as medicines restricted to the US and European markets. “If you look today, some of the biggest sources of growth we see both in use and manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and vaccines is in places like India, Korea, and China,” Darby says.

“There is a lot of vibrancy in terms of demand for these products from the growth markets. This correlates with the best growth opportunities.”