Although the term ‘Biomedicine’ may sound daunting, in effect it is simply just what we understand medicine to be today: medical treatments based on the application of the principles of biological research. The widespread transformation from traditional medicine to biomedicine began in the 19th century and has shaped how we view and receive medical treatment to this current day.
Biomedicine. Image Credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com
History of Medicine
During the time of prehistoric and early civilizations, there was little to no scientific understanding of medicine. Disease and illness were typically attributed to religious or magical causes, treatments were viewed in a similar way. In place of doctors there were priests, shamans, and healers, and whilst there is some evidence of early civilizations practicing herbalism and relatively simple surgeries such as amputations, this was based on observation and belief rather than an understanding of the underlying biological principles.
It was in fact the ancient Greek philosophers who first tried to explain disease through nature. One such philosopher was Hippocrates, widely considered the father of modern medicine. With regards to disease, Hippocrates focused on balance. He suggested that like the four key elements (fire, water, earth, and air), there are four ‘humours’ in the body that should be balanced: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. If something caused the balance of the four humours to be altered, the body would try to correct this by ‘coction’, mixing the opposing humours to create a balance. The excess would then be expelled from the body through processes seen in illness such as vomiting and fever. The physician would attempt to facilitate this by aiding the expulsion, often through bleeding the patient.
Around 250 years after Hippocrates came Asclepiades. He first made the distinction between diseases that could be cured (acute) and those that could not (chronic). Asclepiades rejected Hippocrates’ humoural theory, instead of believing that the body was made up of molecules, consisting of atoms and void spaces- a theory that wouldn’t gain widespread popularity for many more years.
The development of Biomedicine
It wasn’t until the 19th century that molecular theories of medicine began to develop. It was then that we began to see many breakthrough discoveries in many scientific disciplines, rapidly revolutionizing medicine. The key disciplines on which biomedicine was formed are:
Genetics- The study of genes, genetic variation, and heredity
Molecular biology- The study of molecules and molecular processes at a cellular level
Biochemistry- The study of the chemical processes occurring within living organisms
Microbiology- The study of microorganisms, including bacteriology, virology, and immunology
To use Genetics as an example; in 1866 Gregor Mendel used his experiments on pea plants to propose his theory of inheritance, that genes are made up of pairs with one copy inherited from each parent. Shortly after in 1869, Freidrich Meischer first isolated DNA- though he didn’t know what it was at the time. The work of Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick culminated in the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1952, then in 1975, Frederick Sanger developed a technology that could rapidly sequence DNA.
With similar rapid advancements being made in each discipline, this new understanding of disease quickly translated into the medical field. This resulted in a shift from medical treatments based primarily on patient observations to medical treatments deeply rooted in the principles of molecular biology. Understanding the underlying molecular basis of disease has not only improved diagnostics but also allowed the development of evidence-based treatments designed to target specific molecular processes.
The term ‘Biomedicine’ is sometimes also used to refer to ‘Biomedical Science’. This is the study of science applied to the human body, for healthcare use. The Institute of Biomedical Science was founded as the Pathological and Bacteriological Laboratory Assistants’ Association in 1912 to regulate the field, and today Biomedical Scientists primarily work in diagnostic healthcare laboratories.
The future of Biomedicine
Although the biomedical transformation has been hugely successful and vastly improved the medical field, there is still scope for further advancements. One field currently under development is that of gene therapy- identifying a faulty gene and introducing a functional copy to cure the disease. This would be most applicable for single-gene disorders such as Cystic Fibrosis or Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. If successful, this therapy could be key in curing many previously incurable diseases.
Biomedicine today has a primary focus on disease pathology and treatment after the fact. Another potential advancement in the future of biomedicine is to integrate predictive and preventative measures. This would involve identifying individuals likely to suffer from a disease and developing methods to stop the disease development before it takes place. Current preventative healthcare relies primarily on lifestyle modifications, so the development of a novel molecular medicine-based approach could be revolutionary.
To conclude, the medical field has evolved from a beliefs-based system to an evidence-based system now effectively inseparable from scientific research.
With many scientific disciplines still rapidly advancing it is almost certain that new technologies and techniques will bring with them new medical therapies and treatments, more specialized, personalized, and hopefully effective than ever seen before.
- Hart, G.D. (2001), Descriptions of blood and blood disorders before the advent of laboratory studies. British Journal of Haematology, 115: 719-728. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2141.2001.03130.
- Institute of Biomedical Science. About IBMS. Available at: https://www.ibms.org/about/about-ibms/ (Accessed: 24 April 2021)
- Yapijakis, C. (2009). Hippocrates of Kos, the Father of Clinical Medicine, and Asclepiades of Bithynia, the Father of Molecular Medicine. In Vivo, 23 (4) 507-514.