When you first learn what biologic drugs are—drugs derived from the cells of living organisms, usually administered via needle—they don’t exactly sound warm and fuzzy. Yet they actually are, in one major way: Biologics are changing the lives of people with conditions that previously had few effective treatment options. Unlike traditional drugs, which are synthesized start-to-finish in the lab, biologics are based on proteins or other components isolated from natural sources: humans, animals, plants, or even bacteria. While the latest biologic drugs are considered the cutting-edge among medical treatments, the category also includes drugs that are very time-tested and familiar: insulin and hormone treatments, vaccines that contain live virus (like shingles, chickenpox, and MMR vaccines), revolutionary cancer treatments, and even Botox, which is produced using Clostridium botulinum bacteria and related species.
Whether or not you consider fighting wrinkles a noble cause, biologic drugs are also doing truly groundbreaking work: laser-targeting and squelching the inflammation that’s the underlying cause of so many common, chronic conditions, in ways traditional drugs have never been able to. In particular, biologics have proven effective in achieving remission for difficult-to-treat autoimmune conditions. Unfortunately, getting those life-changing effects isn’t as simple as popping a pill. Depending on the specific biologic your doctor has prescribed, you’ll either get the medication via injection or IV infusion, on a schedule that can range from twice weekly to every few months. Many center around at-home injections you give yourself via single-use auto-injector “pens.” Rather than a full-on jab, the shot slips just beneath the skin of a fatty area like your thigh or abdomen; a nurse will teach you how to do the injections properly, but you may be able to get your shots at the doctor’s office if you’re still too squeamish.
Two more things to consider: While biologic treatments interfere with over-reactions in the immune system that cause disease-triggering inflammation, they can also increase your risk for developing certain infections and also make it risky to get vaccines that contain live virus—like the MMR shot—so your doctor will make sure you’re up to date on all vaccinations before you start treatment. Also mention any plans to get pregnant, since the long-term effects of biologics, a relatively new category of drugs, on unborn or nursing babies are unknown.
You should also be sure to check with your insurance company before starting treatment, since biologics are more expensive than traditional drugs, and there may be stipulations around coverage. Keep in mind that once you do find one that gets you into remission, you’ll most likely need to keep using it as a long-term maintenance drug; if you stop a biologic and need to re-start later, your body may have formed antibodies against it that render it ineffective.
Read on for more of what you can expect when using biologics for two common conditions—and why the potential benefits may far outweigh any initial intimidation factor.
If you’ve been frustrated by topical treatments having little to no effect on your psoriasis plaques, biologics may provide the game-changing, long-term solution you’ve been hoping for. Unlike traditional systemic drugs like methotrexate—long prescribed for severe psoriasis—that suppress your whole immune system to reduce overall inflammation, biologic psoriasis treatments are able to take a more targeted approach, interfering with the specific proteins that trigger swelling and scaly skin. This can mean greater effectiveness and less risk of certain serious side effects, ranging from infections to liver and kidney problems. Biologics can also safely be used in conjunction with UV therapy to double down on the skin-clearing effects. It’s also reassuring to know that biologic treatments for psoriasis have a significant track record: the first one was FDA-approved in 2003. Just prepare to be patient; while you might begin to see results in a couple of weeks, it can take a couple of months to notice significant clearing. But the results from there can be dramatic: Many patients experience full, or almost-full, clearing within three months. If you have psoriatic arthritis, a biologic can also stop the joint pain and swelling associated with this condition. As far as side effects go, the most common include rashes, swelling, flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, and upper respiratory infections. Be sure to report any new symptoms and side effects to your doctor, since biologics weaken your immune system and leave you susceptible to more serious infections.
Inflammatory bowel disease
Unlike commonly prescribed corticosteroids, which affect the whole body, biologics can target specific proteins shown to be involved in causing IBD—including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—and sometimes be even more effective at achieving remission. Depending on which biologic for IBD your doctor prescribes, you may receive it via IV infusion or at-home injections, or a combination of the two. Infusions can take between 30 minutes and several hours. With at-home injections, there are sometimes more frequent “starter” doses at the beginning of treatment, after which you’ll increase the time between shots. While some people experience an improvement in symptoms right away, experiencing relief could take up to two months. If you still don’t notice the effects at that point, your doctor will likely suggest trying a different biologic—when it comes to IBD, it can sometimes take a bit of trial and error to find the one that works best for you.
Originally Appeared on Glamour