The exciting role that biotech companies have in medical research


As clinical researchers, we don’t develop new treatments ourselves, but work with medical research and development companies to study theirs. It’s collaborative work, as we can’t exist without the development companies, and they can’t get their treatments to market without us undertaking the studies.

The companies we work with include pharmaceutical companies, but there are also other types of companies involved. One of these is the biotechnology company, or biotech.

The role of pharmaceutical companies

In more recent times, pharmaceutical companies have needed to focus more on the operational aspect of getting a new treatment out to people who need it, rather than developing new treatments from scratch. 1

They direct their energy closer to the end of development, getting new treatments approved safely and out into the world, working with companies like us to conduct the face-to-face, clinical research. With so much effort and resources going into the operational aspects of getting a treatment approved, it often means they have less resources to do the initial research and development of new treatments. 1

That’s where biotechs come in.

Biotechs discover and biopharmas refine

Traditionally the main difference between biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical companies was that first was biologically based, and the latter did more chemical-based research. 1

This is not the case now, as many pharmaceutical companies are now coined as ‘biopharma’ companies, to encompass their work in both synthetic and biological based treatments.

These days, biotechs are more often recognised as working on the discovery of new treatments, rather than the refinement of new treatments that the pharmaceutical companies generally have more resources to do. 2

Biotechs are often start-ups, so they can be very nimble, working at a much faster speed, than the much larger pharmaceutical companies. 1

You might recognise these biotech-developed treatments

Some examples of well-known treatments that you may recognise, that were developed by, or in partnership with biotech companies include:

  • Humira (adalimumab) - used for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and psoriasis. 3
  • Herceptin (trastuzumab) - developed in the 1990s for the treatment of breast cancer and stomach cancer. 3
  • Lantus (insulin glargine) - a long acting form of insulin used to treat type 1 diabetes. 3
  • Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine - You’ll definitely know this one. Pfizer’s vaccine was developed in partnership with the Danish biotechnology company BioNTech. 4

BioNTech had over 20 years experience in mRNA-based technology and by partnering with Pfizer and their massive vaccine development capabilities were able to test and get this treatment approved in less than a year for emergency use by the FDA in December 2020. 4

On August 23 2021, this vaccine received full FDA approval. 5

Without BioNTech’s technology being used to develop this Covid-19 vaccine, the world would be much less hopeful about eliminating the virus, and many more people may have died because of it.

How Optimal Clinical Trials work with biotech companies

At Optimal we work with a mix of Contract Research Organisations (CROs) that work on behalf of pharmaceutical companies and biotechs, and we also work with these companies directly.

If the treatment gets approved for medical use, our mission is complete, as it means we’ve contributed to alleviating the suffering of a group of people somewhere in the world.

''However, we can’t stop there", says Dr Liz Smaill, our General Manager. "Knowing that there are more people out there in sickness, pain or discomfort means our work is not done - that’s why the discovery work of biotechnology companies is so exciting for us".

Want to know more about how the treatments we study get approved for public medical use? Have a read of the strict regulation process in New Zealand here.