What Are Biologics? — 5 Examples of Biological Drugs You May Already Be Taking

Benita Lee
Benita Lee, MPH, is on the Research Team at GoodRx.
Posted on

Botox. Humira. Lantus. Enbrel. You’ve probably heard of at least one of these medicines before, but did you know that all of them are derived from living cells? These popular drugs are examples of biologics, or biological medications, that are developed from blood, proteins, viruses, and living organisms and are used to prevent, treat, and cure human disease.

How are biologics different from other drugs?

Biologics are powerful medications that can be made of tiny components like sugars, proteins, or DNA or can be whole cells or tissues. These drugs also come from all sorts of living sources — mammals, birds, insects, plants, and even bacteria.

Biological medications tend to be at the forefront of medical advances today. Gene-based and cellular biologics, for example, are now making it possible to treat some illnesses where no other treatments were available. 

Because they come from such diverse sources, biologics are usually much more complicated than other drugs. For example, they take a lot more work to purify, process, and produce. Then, once these drugs are formulated, they tend to be more unpredictable and are often more susceptible to light and temperature.

Examples of common biologics

Biologics treat a broad range of common and rare diseases and include vaccines, cell and gene therapies, tissues for transplants, and more. Here are some examples of biologics that you may already be familiar with:

1) Lantus (insulin glargine)

Lantus (insulin glargine) is a long-acting form of human insulin that is used once daily to control blood sugar levels in patients with diabetes. It works in adults with type 2 diabetes and in both adults and children (6 years and older) with type 1 diabetes. In patients with diabetes, blood sugar levels run high. Insulin helps the body turn that excess sugar into energy or store it in muscles, fat, and the liver for later use.

2) Humira (adalimumab)

Some of the more famous biologics treat rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other autoimmune diseases like psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. These include Humira (adalimumab), Remicade (infliximab), and Rituxan (rituximab), and Enbrel (etanercept). The first three medications ending with “-mab” belong to a group of drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

In the case of RA treatment, monoclonal antibodies prevent inflammatory processes that lead to joint inflammation, damage, and pain by trapping specific molecules in the body that would otherwise trigger inflammation.

3) Herceptin (trastuzumab)

First developed in the early 1990’s, Herceptin (trastuzumab) was one of the most-prescribed cancer biologics in 2017. Herceptin is used to treat HER2-positive breast cancer and HER2-positive metastatic stomach cancer. Like many rheumatoid arthritis drugs, Herceptin is a monoclonal antibody. It targets HER2-positive cancer cells and reigns in processes that cause cells to grow and multiply uncontrollably — hallmark features of cancer cells.

4) Avastin (bevacizumab)

Avastin (bevacizumab) and Lucentis (ranibizumab) are two biological medications widely used in ophthalmology offices, specifically those that treat patients with retinal diseases like age-related macular degeneration. Lucentis is a medication solely for the eye, whereas Avastin can also be used in certain breast, colorectal, kidney, lung, brain, and ovarian cancers. Both drugs are monoclonal antibodies that target human blood vessels.

With age-related macular degeneration, an eye disease that results in central vision loss, new leaky blood vessels grow under the retina that can worsen the progression of the disease. Lucentis and Avastin can both stop these blood vessels from growing out of hand. Some cancers often grow faster as new blood vessels grow and feed them, so a drug like Avastin that stops this process can also be helpful for treatment.

5) Botox (onabotulinumtoxina)

Lastly, Botox (onabotulinumtoxina) is a biologic produced by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. You may already know of Botox as a drug used in cosmetic procedures, but it’s actually helpful for many other diseases and conditions. Botox is a toxin that blocks nerves and muscles from activating. Aside from making wrinkles disappear, Botox is used to treat muscle spasms, underarm sweating, migraines, and loss of bladder control due to nerve damage caused by multiple sclerosis (MS) or spinal cord injury.

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