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A biopharmaceutical, also known as a biologic medical product or more simply as a biologic or biological, is any medicinal product manufactured in or extracted from biological sources or semisynthesized from them. Biopharmaceuticals are thus distinct from pharmaceutical products chemically synthesized in biology-independent ways from petrochemical precursors. Examples of biopharmaceuticals include vaccines, blood or blood components, allergenics, somatic cells, gene therapies, tissues, recombinant therapeutic protein, and the living cells used in cell therapy .

Terminology surrounding biopharmaceuticals varies between groups and entities, with different terms referring to different subsets of therapeutics within the general biopharmaceutical category. Some major regulatory agencies use the terms biological medicinal products or therapeutic biological product to specifically refer to engineered macromolecular products like protein-based and nucleic-acid-based drugs, distinguishing them from products like blood, blood components or vaccines, which are usually directly extracted from a biological source.[1][2][3]

Biologics can be composed of sugars, proteins or nucleic acids or complex combinations of these substances, or may be living entities such as cells and tissues. Biologics are isolated from a variety of natural sources — human, animal or microorganism — and may be produced by biotechnology methods and other technologies. Gene-based and cellular biologics, for example, often are at the forefront of biomedical research, and may be used to treat a variety of medical conditions for which no other treatments are available.[4]

In some jurisdictions, biologics are regulated via different pathways than other small molecule drugs and medical devices.[5]

Major classes[edit]

Blood plasma is a type of biopharmaceutical directly extracted from living systems.

Extracted from living systems[edit]

Some of the oldest forms of biologics are extracted from the bodies of animals, and other humans especially. Important biologics include:

Some biologics that were previously extracted from animals, such as insulin, are now more commonly produced by recombinant DNA.

Produced by recombinant DNA[edit]

As indicated the term "biologics" can be used to refer to a wide range of biological products in medicine. However, in most cases, the term "biologics" is used more restrictively for a class of therapeutics (either approved or in development) that are produced by means of biological processes involving recombinant DNA technology. These medications are usually one of three types:

  1. Substances that are (nearly) identical to the body's own key signalling proteins. Examples are the blood-production stimulating protein erythropoetin, or the growth-stimulating hormone named (simply) "growth hormone" or biosynthetic human insulin and its analogues.
  2. Monoclonal antibodies. These are similar to the antibodies that the human immune system uses to fight off bacteria and viruses, but they are "custom-designed" (using hybridoma technology or other methods) and can therefore be made specifically to counteract or block any given substance in the body, or to target any specific cell type; examples of such monoclonal antibodies for use in various diseases are given in the table below.
  3. Receptor constructs (fusion proteins), usually based on a naturally-occurring receptor linked to the immunoglobulin frame. In this case, the receptor provides the construct with detailed specificity, whereas the immunoglobulin-structure imparts stability and other useful features in terms of pharmacology. Some examples are listed in the table below.

Biologics as a class of medications in this narrower sense have had a profound impact on many medical fields, primarily rheumatology and oncology, but also cardiology, dermatology, gastroenterology, neurology, and others. In most of these disciplines, biologics have added major therapeutic options for the treatment of many diseases, including some for which no effective therapies were available, and others where previously existing therapies were clearly inadequate. However, the advent of biologic therapeutics has also raised complex regulatory issues (see below), and significant pharmacoeconomic concerns, because the cost for biologic therapies has been dramatically higher than for conventional (pharmacological) medications. This factor has been particularly relevant since many biological medications are used for the treatment of chronic diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease, or for the treatment of otherwise untreatable cancer during the remainder of life. The cost of treatment with a typical monoclonal antibody therapy for relatively common indications is generally in the range of €7,000-14,000 per patient per year.

Older patients who receive biologic therapy for diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or ankylosing spondylitis are at increased risk for life-threatening infection, adverse cardiovascular events, and malignancy. However, because other therapies are often ineffective, biologic therapy should be considered for some of these patients.[6]

The first such substance approved for therapeutic use was biosynthetic 'human' insulin made via recombinant DNA technology. Sometimes referred to as rHI, under the trade name Humulin, was developed by Genentech, but licensed to Eli Lilly and Company, who manufactured and marketed the product starting in 1982.

Major kinds of biopharmaceuticals include:

Research and development investment in new medicines by the biopharmaceutical industry stood at $65.2bn in 2008.[7] A few examples of biologics made with recombinant DNA technology include:

USAN/INN Trade Name Indication Technology Mechanism of Action
abatacept Orencia rheumatoid arthritis immunoglobin CTLA-4 fusion protein T-cell deactivation
adalimumab Humira rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn's disease monoclonal antibody TNF antagonist
alefacept Amevive chronic plaque psoriasis immunoglobin G1 fusion protein incompletely characterized
erythropoietin Epogen anemia arising from cancer chemotherapy, chronic renal failure, etc. recombinant protein stimulation of red blood cell production
etanercept Enbrel rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis recombinant human TNF-receptor fusion protein TNF antagonist
infliximab Remicade rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, psoriasis, Ulcerative Colitus, Crohn's disease monoclonal antibody TNF antagonist
trastuzumab Herceptin breast cancer humanized monoclonal antibody HER2/neu (erbB2) antagonist
ustekinumab Stelara psoriasis humanized monoclonal antibody IL-12 and IL-23 antagonist
denileukin diftitox Ontak cutaneous T-cell lymphoma (CTCL) Diphtheria toxin engineered protein combining Interleukin-2 and Diphtheria toxin Interleukin-2 receptor binder
golimumab Simponi rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn's disease monoclonal antibody TNF antagonist


Main article: Vaccine

Many vaccines are grown in tissue cultures.

Gene therapy[edit]

Viral gene therapy involves artificially manipulating a virus to include a desirable piece of genetic material.


Main article: Biosimilars

With the expiration of numerous patents for blockbuster biologics in the years 2012-2019, the interest in the production of biosimilars, i.e. follow-on biologics, has increased in pharmaceutical industries.[8] Compared to small molecules which consist of chemically identical active ingredients, biologics are vastly more complex and consist of a multitude of subspecies. Due to their heterogeneity and the high process sensitivity, neither originators nor follow-on manufacturers produce completely constant quality profiles over time.[9] The process variations are monitored by modern analytical tools (e.g. liquid chromatography, immunoassays, mass spectrometry, etc.) and describe a unique design space for each biologic.

Thus, biosimilars require a different regulatory framework compared to small-molecule generics. Legislation in the 21st century has addressed this by recognizing an intermediate ground of testing for biosimilars. The filing pathway requires more testing than for small-molecule generics, but less testing than for registering completely new therapeutics.[10]

In 2003, the European Medicines Agency introduced an adapted pathway for biosimilars, termed similar biological medicinal products. This pathway is based on a thorough demonstration of "comparability" of the "similar" product to an existing approved product.[11] Within the U.S., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 created an abbreviated approval pathway for biological products shown to be biosimilar to, or interchangeable with, an FDA licensed reference biological product.[10][12] A major hope linked to the introduction of biosimilars is a reduction of costs to the patients and the healthcare system.[8]


When a new biopharmaceutical is developed, the company will typically apply for a patent, which is a grant for exclusive manufacturing rights. This is the primary means by which the developer of the drug can recover the investment cost for development of the biopharmaceutical. The patent laws in the United States and Europe differ somewhat on the requirements for a patent, with the European requirements are perceived as more difficult to satisfy. The total number of patents granted for biopharmaceuticals has risen significantly since the 1970s. In 1978 the total patents granted was 30. This had climbed to 15,600 in 1995, and by 2001 there were 34,527 patent applications.[13]

Large scale production[edit]

Biopharmaceuticals may be produced from microbial cells (e.g. recombinant E. coli or yeast cultures), mammalian cell lines (see cell culture) and plant cell cultures (see plant tissue culture) and moss plants in bioreactors of various configurations, including photo-bioreactors.[14] Important issues of concern are cost of production (a low volume, high purity product is desirable) and microbial contamination (by bacteria, viruses, mycoplasma, etc.). Alternative platforms of production which are being tested include whole plants (plant-made pharmaceuticals).


Main article: Pharming (genetics)

A potentially controversial method of producing biopharmaceuticals involves transgenic organisms, particularly plants and animals that have been genetically modified to produce drugs. The production of these organisms represents a significant risk on the part of the investor, both in terms of the risk of failure to produce the required organism, and in the risk of non-acceptance by government bodies due to the perceived risks and from ethical issues. Biopharmaceutical crops also represent a risk of cross-contamination with non-engineered crops, or crops engineered for non-medical purposes.

One potential approach to this technology is the creation of a transgenic mammal that can produce the biopharmaceutical in its milk (or blood or urine). Once an animal is produced, typically using the pronuclear microinjection method, it becomes efficacious to use cloning technology to create additional offspring that carry the favorable modified genome.[15] The first such drug manufactured from the milk of a genetically-modified goat was ATryn, but marketing permission was blocked by the European Medicines Agency in February 2006.[16] This decision was reversed in June 2006 and approval was given August 2006.[17]


European Union[edit]

In the European Union, a biological medicinal product[18] is one of the active substance(s) produced from or extracted from a biological (living) system, and requires, in addition to physico-chemical testing, biological testing for full characterisation. The characterisation of a biological medicinal product is a combination of testing the active substance and the final medicinal product together with the production process and its control.

For example,

  • With regard to the production process, a biological medicinal product can be derived from biotechnology or derived from other new technologies. It may be prepared using more conventional techniques, as well, as is the case for blood or plasma-derived products and a number of vaccines.
  • With regard to the nature of its active substance, a biological medicinal product can consist of entire microorganisms or mammalian cells or of nucleic acids or proteinaceous or polysaccharide component(s) originating from a microbial, animal, human or plant source.
  • With regard to its mode of action, a biological medicinal product can be a therapeutic medicinal product, an immunological medicinal product, gene transfer materials, or cell therapy materials.

United States[edit]

Within the United States, biologics are regulated by the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER). Drugs, by contrast, are regulated by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). Approval can require several years of clinical trials, including trials with human volunteers. Even after the drug is released, it will still be monitored for performance and safety risks. The manufacture of the drug must satisfy the "current Good Manufacturing Practices" regulations of the FDA. They are typically manufactured in a clean room environment with set standards for the amount of airborne particles.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rader RA (2008). "(Re)defining biopharmaceutical". Nat. Biotechnol. 26 (7): 743–51. doi:10.1038/nbt0708-743. PMID 18612293. 
  2. ^ "Drugs@FDA Glossary of Terms". Food and Drug Administration. 2 Feb 2012. Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  3. ^ Walsh, Gary. Biopharmaceuticals: Biochemistry and Biotechnology, Second Edition. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. ISBN 978-0-470-84326-0. 
  4. ^ Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (2010-04-01). "What is a biological product?". U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved 2014-02-09. 
  5. ^ United States Food and Drug Administration (August 2008). "Supplemental applications proposing labeling changes for approved drugs, biologics, and medical devices. Final rule". Fed Regist 73 (164): 49603–10. PMID 18958946. 
  6. ^ Kerr LD (2010). "The use of biologic agents in the geriatric population". J Musculoskel Med 27: 175–180. 
  7. ^ BriskFox Financial. "Biopharmaceutical sector sees rising R&D despite credit crunch, finds analysis". Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  8. ^ a b Calo-Fernández B, Martínez-Hurtado J (December 2012). "Biosimilars: Company Strategies to Capture Value from the Biologics Market". Pharmaceuticals 5 (12): 1393–1408. doi:10.3390/ph5121393. 
  9. ^ Schiestl M, Stangler T, Torella C, Čepeljnik T, Toll H, Grau R (2011). "Acceptable changes in quality attributes of glycosylated biopharmaceuticals". Nat. Biotech. 29 (4): 310–12. doi:10.1038/nbt0411-310. PMID 21478841. 
  10. ^ a b Nick C (2012). "The US Biosimilars Act: Challenges Facing Regulatory Approval". Pharm Med 26 (3): 145–152. doi:10.1007/bf03262388. 
  11. ^ EMA (2008-10-30). "Questions and answers on biosimilar medicines (similar biological medicinal products)". European Medicines Agency. Retrieved 2014-10-11. 
  12. ^ 75 F.R. 61497; United States Food and Drug Administration (2010-10-05). "Approval Pathway for Biosimilar and Interchangeable Biological Products". Public Hearing; Request for Comments. 
  13. ^ Luke Foster. "Patenting in the Biopharmaceutical Industry—comparing the US with Europe". Archived from the original on 2006-03-16. Retrieved 2006-06-23. 
  14. ^ Decker EL, Reski R (2008). "Current achievements in the production of complex biopharmaceuticals with moss bioreactors". Bioprocess Biosyst Eng 31 (1): 3–9. doi:10.1007/s00449-007-0151-y. PMID 17701058. 
  15. ^ Dove A (2000). "Milking the genome for profit". Nat. Biotechnol. 18 (10): 1045–8. doi:10.1038/80231. PMID 11017040. 
  16. ^ Phillip B. C. Jones. "European Regulators Curdle Plans for Goat Milk Human Antithrombin". Retrieved 2006-06-23. 
  17. ^ "Go-ahead for 'pharmed' goat drug". BBC News. 2006-06-02. Retrieved 2006-10-25. 
  18. ^ The Commission of the European Communities (2003-06-25). "Commission Directive 2003/63/EC amending Directive 2001/83/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the Community code relating to medicinal products for human use". Official Journal of the European Union. p. L 159/62. 

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