By Tara Baukus Mello

Medically reviewed by Jonathan Hansen, MD, PhD

Biologics are a group of the most cutting-edge medications in U.S. biotech. “Biologics” are the nickname for biological products—a wide array of products that are manufactured by the biotechnology industry but are composed of materials that naturally occur in living organisms, including in the human body.

What Are Biologics?

In the general sense, biologics are medications that are isolated from living cells or organisms such as humans, animals, or even microorganisms and are comprised of nucleic acids, proteins or sugars (or a combination of these). They come in many forms, including agents for gene therapy and vaccines as well as components of blood and tissue. However, in the field of IBD, the term biologic refers to large proteins called antibodies that bind and neutralize other proteins that cause IBD. These antibodies are produced in, and purified from, large batches of living cells using complex manufacturing techniques.

Are Biologics Drugs?

Biologics are not drugs in the conventional sense. What you think of as “drugs” are chemical compounds that are synthetically manufactured using chemical reactions. Like conventional drugs, biologics are medicines designed to treat diseases. However, unlike conventional drugs, they attack their target with a high degree of accuracy. Therefore, biologics tend to have fewer so-called “off-target effects.” Also, because biologics are large proteins that can’t be absorbed by the intestine, they always must be given by some type of injection rather than by mouth.

What is Their Role in IBD?

Because of their effectiveness in treating IBD, biologics are among the most frequently prescribed IBD medications. Nowadays, the vast majority of IBD patients have been treated with at least one biologic. There are currently three different classes of biologic medicines used in IBD: anti-TNFs, anti-integrins and anti-IL-12p40 medicines, though the field is expanding rapidly and at least one new class is likely to be approved by the FDA to treat IBD within the next several years.

How Safe and Effective Are They?

In general, biologics maintain long-term remission of IBD symptoms in about 40 percent of patients, so they don’t work for everyone. But when they do, they can be a solid treatment option. For the most part, biologics are relatively safe to take long-term and have minimal side effects because they target only a single protein that is involved in the development of IBD. However, there are rare but documented risks to taking biologics. These might include allergic reactions, infections, and even more rarely cancer. Of course, there are specific benefits and risks of the most common biologic medicines prescribed for Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. If you have questions about how these medicines might work for you, talk to your healthcare provider.

Medical reviewer and Oshi physician-partner Jonathan Hansen, MD, PhD, has been involved in 20-plus clinical trials of investigational compounds that target various pathways important in the development of IBD. He has co-authored book chapters on IBD and been published in a variety of peer-reviewed journals, and his interests include the role of environmental bacteria in the development of chronic intestinal inflammation. Dr. Hansen serves as an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Gastroenterology & Hepatology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received his BS in Biochemistry from Brigham Young University, and his MD and PhD in Microbiology and Immunology from Indiana University School of Medicine.

Oshi is a tracking tool and content resource. It does not render medical advice or services, and it is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. You should always review this information with your healthcare professionals.