This week scientists at Yale University have announced one of those game-changing achievements that could change the future of medicine. And, probably, win a Nobel prize. They have synthesized mini-antibodies that can function within the body and attack both cancer cells and disease-causing agents.
An antibody is a highly complex macro-molecule, produced by the adaptive division of the immune system. It’s a powerful bespoke weapon that will only attack a single type of bacterium, a particular strain of virus or a cancer cell with a particular genetic signature. They lock on to receptors on the surface of the pathogens and disable them. Imagine them as tiny wheel clamps that are individually designed for each new make of car that comes on the market. One of the problems with antibody production is that it is not instant. It takes the immune system several days or weeks to get its production line up to speed and in a serious disease like Ebola, the patient can die before enough antibodies are produced. Once the antibody template has been produced, it can be used more swiftly whenever the particular threat re-appears.To work on cancer cells the immune system first has to identify them as alien.
Antibodies are tiny and these new synthetic antibodies even smaller. Picture a bespoke wheel clamp on a jumbo jet. But that might make them easier to produce.
Currently there are just a few ways in which medicine can use antibodies:
Vaccines – in which the body is induced to create a new type of antibody without becoming ill. New vaccines are hard to develop.
Extracting antibodies from blood of those previously infected. This is being tried currently to treat Ebola.
Snake bite serum – produced by injecting animals with small amount of venom and then extracting antibodies from blood serum.
Monoclonal antibodies – producing an individual antibody type in the lab, using a complex biological system.
If simpler synthetic antibodies could be produced by a less laborious process than monoclonal antibodies it would open the door to a wide range of options in treating infectious diseases and cancers.
A ground breaking moment in immunology without a doubt.