I’ve been taking a pill for my arthritis, and now my doctor has recommended that I start treatment with a biologic drug. What is a biologic and how is it different from the pills I’ve been taking?

April 22, 2016

Recently biologic drugs have been in the news, mostly because many of them are very expensive. However, these types of drugs have been around since the 18th century when the smallpox vaccine was first developed; in fact, all vaccines are considered biologics. Insulin is also a biologic drug, and it was discovered in the 1920s (in Toronto!).

Although biologics aren’t really new, the use of biotechnology to create biologic drugs has expanded considerably in recent years with a significant number of biologic products now available to treat a wide range of illnesses (such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Cohn’s disease, colitis, multiple sclerosis, high cholesterol, asthma, and eye conditions). This is why you’ve been hearing more about biologic drugs. 

So how are biologic drugs different from the traditional drugs you’re more used to being prescribed? Here’s a summary:

Taking a biologic is a bit different from taking a traditional drug; for example, biologic drugs are typically administered by injection rather than orally, so you may have to learn to inject yourself with the medication or go to a clinic to have it administered. Biologics also require special handling, usually refrigeration. While taking a traditional medication may involve undergoing routine blood tests, taking biologics brings other considerations since these drugs affect your immune system. For example, the timing and administration of medications like vaccines may be affected, and you may need to be tested for other conditions before starting treatment.

Biologics present a new option for people who have taken traditional drugs that failed to effectively treat their conditions. Before biologic drugs were developed, those people had no alternative available. Since your doctor has recommended that you try a biologic drug, it might be right for you.

Be sure to check back next month when we answer a question about subsequent-entry biologics!