What Are Life Sciences?
This article is the first of a 4-part series including the following topics: “What is life science” (current feature), “Translational Research,” “Spatial Research,” and “Biomarkers in Translational/Spatial Research.”
The field of life science continues to grow by leaps and bounds, beginning from evolutionary concepts in the early 20th century, and rapidly expanding to the emerging utilization of novel technologies like Artificial Intelligence for disease management. As research volume has grown, the life sciences have branched out into several specialized sub-fields, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, biochemistry, genomics, cell biology, and many more.
This article gives an overarching life sciences definition, explains its specialized branches, and explores real-world application. Later in the article is an overview of the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, the impact these industries have made to healthcare, and how they have grown globally. Additionally, we highlight the evolving function of contract research organizations (CRO) and academic medical centers (AMC), as both entities produce cutting-edge life science-based research to advance human health.
1. WHAT IS LIFE SCIENCE?
Life science studies living organisms and processes. It spans a vast swath of scientific research, from aiding our understanding of microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria, to deciphering the physiological processes of the largest land and marine animals on the planet. Life science can be divided into basic science (for example, the discovery of life processes, such as cell division), applied science (for example, new drug candidate testing in clinical phases to manipulate uncontrolled cell division), and translational research (for example, screening a drug compound to treat cancer and using it for medicinal practice).
1.1 Basic and Applied Life Sciences
Basic science focuses on generation of novel biological insights and increasing knowledge of life processes, with little concern about immediate application. For example, the study of yeast in understanding the mechanism of the cell cycle was not of any immediate use; however, today this basic observation is applied to study the cell cycle of higher organisms, including the study of several proto-oncogenic genes such as p53 and Rb1. Applied science follows basic science and is focused on the practical application of new findings. Exploring the mechanism behind viral infection is basic science, while performing clinical research to better understand this mechanism is an example of applied science. In this way, basic science and applied science are intermeshed, as basic science’s work leads to applied science in the real world.
Basic and applied sciences’ primary aim is to answer scientific questions in a manner that may ultimately address key problems in clinical patient populations. To achieve that goal, translational research tests the viability of ideas by performing human trials.
1.2 Translational research
Translational research includes the evolution of investigational product testing from “bench to bedside”, from studies at the molecular level to preclinical and clinical level testing, to address a clinical problem or improve outcomes. For example, the use of basic biological knowledge translated from cells to animal models to human clinical trials has led to discovery of many drugs to treat cancer patients: a profoundly successful solution to a real-world problem. Translational research focuses on addressing real-life scientific issues leveraging the knowledge established in the basic and applied sciences.
Translational research requires a concerted and coordinated effort from life science professionals including clinicians, biotechnologists, and computational biologists. This multidisciplinary team improves patient lives by bringing novel technology, innovation, and precise treatment to the general population. The effect of this research is far-reaching as it provides a solution to a real-world problem.1,2,3 A schematic of the interdependency of basic, applied, and translational research is described in Figure 1 .
Figure 1. Basic science, applied science, and translational research are generally dependent on each other, with an aim to improve human life.
2. BRANCHES OF LIFE SCIENCE
In addition to many types of microorganisms, there are around 9 million plant and animal species.4 Since the concept of life science is broad and multifaceted, the field has been divided into several specialized branches. The most relevant ones to this article are discussed below.
Biology comprises fields that explore physiological processes, including molecular biology, biochemistry, and cell biology. Other biology fields study specific organisms, such as virology (study of viruses), microbiology (study of microorganisms), and botany (study of plants). With the recent technological advances, bioinformatics, bioengineering, and biomathematics are now firmly established fields that analyze scientific problems through a novel perspective.5
2.2 Cell Biology
Cell biology is the study of a cell as an individual unit, exploring physiological processes and mechanisms that allow life processes to operate at the molecular level, including cellular structure, division, energy exchange, signaling pathways, and more. Cell biology research studies many cell types, including prokaryotic, eukaryotic, animal, and plant cells, with the help of rapidly advancing technologies and techniques such as microscopy, cell culture, and cloning.
Biochemistry is the study of chemical interactions within or in relation to a living organism. Biochemistry studies the chemistry of a cell and/or organism and the mechanism by which biochemical reactions maintain the fine balance required to sustain life. Biochemical studies also may focus on the structure of a living organism by investigating how molecules, such as lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates, interact in a complex environment to regulate vital body functions.
2.4 Environmental Science
Environmental science addresses environmental problems using a combination of physics, geology, chemistry, and geography to understand and ameliorate these issues.
Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system—its structure, development, and function in an organism. Neuroscience also addresses neural developmental issues and possible solutions.
Genetics is the study of genes and how each gene is passed from one generation to another. A gene is part of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which consists of nitrogenous sequences that code for specific proteins, the expression of which determines individual biological traits. Aberrant genetic makeup could predispose an individual to diseases. Techniques such as DNA sequencing could precisely identify aberrant gene expression, thereby aiding in genetic disease (for example, arthritis, cystic fibrosis, etc.) identification.6 Genetics has continuously played a role in broadening the understanding of how traits are transferred to progeny. Additionally, the field has opened doors for exploring whether certain types of cancer are germinal or somatic.
Genomics investigates the intricate mechanistic expression of a gene and its interaction with other genes and the environment. Whole genome sequencing, a central testing mechanism within the study of genomics, is a technology that can sequence/decipher an organism’s whole set of genes with a low turnaround time. Accurate sequencing of the genome requires inputs from bioinformatics scientists, clinicians, and laboratory scientists. With the development of relevant technology, genomics is being rapidly used to diagnose and create a plan for once life-threatening diseases, including hypertension, cardiovascular ailments, and diabetes.
Proteomics is the study of proteins and their structure to understand the biological processes occurring within the organism. This branch helps in detecting a protein’s binding/interacting partners, signaling pathways, and/or subcellular locations. Through proteomics and utilizing techniques such as mass spectrometry, scientists can fully characterize attributes of proteins to identify specific targets for the treatment of a particular disease.
2.9 Other Branches
The definitions of some other branches of life science that are not directly relevant to the current article are described below:
- Ecology – Study of organisms and interactions within their environment
- Botany – Study of plants
- Zoology – Study of animals
- Microbiology – Study of microorganisms
- Entomology – Study of insects
- Epidemiology – Study of diseases and how they spread
- Paleontology – Study of fossils/evolution
- Marine Biology – Study of marine life
- Food Sciences – Study of improving, innovating, and producing nutritious food types
3. LIFE SCIENCE INDUSTRY
The life sciences industry, comprising mostly private companies leveraging biological knowledge, investigates and improves overall well-being of living organisms. This field includes sectors such as biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, and medical device manufacturing.
3.1 Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Industry
Biotechnology is the use of technology to improve life, and it is one of the most important modern tools to address biological problems. For example, human beings have been using microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast to use in fermentation to make cheese, alcohol, and curd. The biotechnology industry is primarily divided into medical and agricultural biotechnology. Medical biotechnology has helped in developing new drug products (for example, the development of an mRNA-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccine), while agricultural biotechnology has contributed to the improvement of crop yield and food products. In addition to medical and agricultural sectors, the branch is also stratified into environmental, animal, and industrial biotechnology. The global biotechnology industry grew to around $860 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow to $1,684 billion by 2030.
3.1.2 Pharmaceutical Industry
The pharmaceutical industry develops, synthesizes, and produces drug products derived from chemicals, including many easily recognizable treatments such as acetaminophen(Tylenol), and acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). The industry is at the forefront of delivering drug products that can provide accurate treatment to patients. In the year 2021, the global pharmaceutical market stood at close to $1.5 trillion.7 North America, EU, and Japan are currently the leading pharmaceutical market; however, as product development has reached global collaboration, the Asian market is quickly becoming a pharmaceutical product manufacturing hub.8
The pharmaceutical industry involves concerted efforts toward drug discovery, drug product development, and approval. For development of a single product, approximately 10,000 candidates are selected, out of which 200 are screened for preclinical analysis and ultimately reduced to approximately 5 candidates for further clinical testing. This whole process of initial candidate selection to commercialization requires the expertise of biochemists, environmentalists, biologists, and other life scientists and takes around 15 years. One of the many challenges for the industry in the future is to continue innovating so that precise treatment for any disease is available to the patient.
3.1.3 Comparative analysis
Biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry are both important drivers of the healthcare industry. While biotechnology-based products use living organisms, pharmaceutical products are chemically derived. The pharmaceutical industry developed before biotechnology began and generates higher global revenue. However, pharmaceutical partners are now merging with biotechnology companies to become a single “biopharmaceutical industry”. Some differences between the 2 fields are described in Table 1. 9,10
Table 1. Differences between biotechnology and pharmaceutical
|Products made from living organism||Products are chemically derived|
|Biotechnology derived product is called a “biologic”||Pharma derived product is called a “drug”|
|Biologics license application or BLA is the regulatory path to FDA approval||New Drug Application or NDA is the regulatory path to FDA approval|
|Marketing exclusivity period for a biologic is 12 years||Marketing exclusivity period for a new chemical entity is 5 years|
3.2 CROs and AMCs
CROs and AMCs are vital organizations where necessary biomedical research is performed. Due to the complexities of total product development, life science and biopharmaceutical companies outsource parts of the development process to a CRO. In addition, AMCs are at the forefront of novel research across the spectrum of life science, from performing vital clinical trials to developing and generating previously unknown basic life science-related ideas.
CROs are contract vendors that offer services to several fields of life science, including biotechnology, medical device manufacturers, and pharmaceuticals. CROs can provide support in any stage of product development, from preclinical to any clinical phase (phase 0 – phase IV) of the study.11Sponsors of major research projects collaborate with CROs to speed up their research program. These sponsors look to CROs to be an end-to-end strategic partner to successfully execute development and approval activities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, major pharmaceutical companies outsourced their activities to CROs to achieve a quicker turnaround. It is projected that by 2028, total CRO global revenue will swell to almost $128 billion, up from ~$77 billion in 2023, with an almost 11% annual growth in 5 years (2023-2028).12
Separately, AMCs are the seat of innovation, especially for conducting clinical and translational research. Collaboration between industry and AMCs is essential for efficient investigational product management. This symbiotic relationship is mutually beneficial and speeds up product innovation, approval, and commercialization. More than 50% of AMCs maintain active collaboration with the life science industry in the form of advisory board membership, start-up partnership, and consultation.13
Life sciences have grown immensely in the past two centuries. The contributions of this field to human health are so many that sometimes we tend to underappreciate the importance of the readily available products; for example, common flu, which was once a deadly disease, is now cured by penicillin; polio, caused by a life-threatening virus resulting in debilitating disease, has been nearly eradicated through vaccination.
This article has provided a broad look at life science meaning and application while providing an overview of some of its branches. Additionally, the value of biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry to human/animal health in terms of importance, growth, and revenue generation (Figure 2) have been discussed.15,16 An overview of CROs and AMCs was given here due to their rapid prominence in collaborative life science breakthroughs. CROs are fast becoming strategic partners of medical device and pharmaceutical companies and take a significant burden for executing successful product approval and commercialization. Similarly, enhanced cooperation in performing applied life sciences-based research between AMCs and industries through joint grant submission has led to increased funding by major funders, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Recent collaborations between CROs and AMCs have also seen an uptick in translational research capabilities, eventually improving potential treatment outreach to the local community.
In addition to the established life-sciences branches, such as biology, biochemistry, or microbiology, the development of newer fields, including proteomics, genomics, transcriptomics, and bioinformatics, has strengthened the field's impact even more. The effective utilization of the corresponding tools by CROs, AMCs, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical industries has made a paradigm shift to new product development. Life science will continue to push scientific boundaries and improve both human and planetary health.
- Basic, Clinical and Translational Research: What’s the Difference? Published on December 12, 2017. Updated on November 16, 2018. https://blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2017/12/basic-clinical-translational-research-whats-difference/
- What is Translational Research? UAMS, Translational research institute. Accessed April 19, 2023. Read More
- Translational Research. University of Virginia, translational research. Accessed April 18, 2023. Read More
- Life Science Overview, Topics & Examples. Study.com. Accessed April 18, 2023. https://study.com/learn/lesson/life-sciences-overview-topics-examples.html
- What is Biology? Swenson College of Science and Engineering. Accessed 15 April, 2023. Read More
- Genetics. National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Accessed April 15, 2023. https://nigms.nih.gov/education/fact-sheets/Pages/genetics.aspx
- Global pharmaceutical industry - statistics & facts. Statista. Accessed 10 April, 2023. https://www.statista.com/topics/1764/global-pharmaceutical-industry/#topicOverview
- Drug discovery and development. Britannica. Accessed 05 April, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/technology/pharmaceutical-industry/Drug-discovery-and-development 9.
- Biotech vs pharma: Differences and similarities. Qualio. June 16, 2022, Accessed 12 April 2023. https://www.qualio.com/blog/biotech-vs-pharma
- Biotechnology vs. Pharmaceuticals: What's the Difference? Investopodia. Accessed 30 May, 2023. Read More
- The Rise of CROs in Life Sciences. Accessed 23 May 2023. https://focusonlifescience.org/the-rise-of-cros-in-life-sciences/
- Contract Research Organization (CRO) Services Market worth $127.3 billion by 2028 - Exclusive Report by MarketsandMarkets™. Accessed 17 May 2023. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/contract-research-organization-cro-services-market-worth-127-3-billion-by-2028---exclusive-report-by-marketsandmarkets-301737148.html
- collaborating for value the path to successful academic community relationships. Accessed 20 May, 2023 https://www.bdcadvisors.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/0618_HFM_Fairchild.pdf
- Zinner DE, Campbell EG. Life-science research within US academic medical centers. JAMA. 2009;302(9):969-976. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.1265. Accessed 20 May, 2023 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3772727/
- Precedence Research. Biotechnology Market. Accessed 15 May, 2023. https://www.precedenceresearch.com/biotechnology-market
- Newswires. Global Pharmaceuticals Market Projected Growth Until 2030. Accessed 15 May, 2023. https://www.einnews.com/pr_news/599925140/global-pharmaceuticals-market-projected-growth-until-2030
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