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What Are Monoclonal Antibodies?

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A monoclonal antibody (MAb) is a type of antibody used to diagnose and treat a variety of medical conditions. Antibodies are essentially strings of protein molecules released by B-cells (immune cells) that attach to foreign objects in the body (antigens), allowing other immune cells to detect and destroy them.

The B-cells in our bodies each manufacture a specific type of antibody, produced in response to an attack on the immune system. If you were to extract blood from your own body, the diverse mix of collected antibodies floating in your blood sample would be termed polyclonal antibodies because they would not all be of the same type.

The subject of this article concerns monoclonal antibodies, which refer to antibodies that are identical in structure and function. To synthesise these useful protein strands, scientists first have to culture a collection of the desired antibody-producing B-cells, through cloning a parent cell or maintaining a cell line. Once this has been achieved, a laboratory can then use these cells to synthesise the antibodies needed for use in medicine.

How do Monoclonal Antibodies Work?

Monoclonal antibodies have a specific structure that complements the shape of their targeted antigen, analogous to a lock-and-key mechanism. Antigens are found on the outer surface of harmful agents (bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, etc.) and are used to communicate with their surrounding environment and transport substances in and out of a cell.

During an immune response, antibodies produced by B-cells will attach to the surface of a harmful agent, allowing the immune system to recognise and destroy the agent or neutralise it. When monoclonal antibodies are used to neutralise or remove specific substances, they will attach to one type of surface protein, allowing scientists to utilise them for purification or detection methods.

Knowing exactly what sort of cells a batch of monoclonal antibodies will target is incredibly useful in medicine, because it allows researchers and doctors to indirectly detect the presence of certain proteins when a positive reaction takes place. HIV detection is one of the most notable benefits offered by monoclonal antibodies.

How Effective are Monoclonal Antibodies?

In terms of medical applications, monoclonal antibodies are effective in a range of specialities. For diagnostics, these proteins are often used to detect particular substances in tissue and blood samples. The Western blot test is a well known example of this diagnostic effectiveness, using monoclonal antibodies to definitely identify conditions such as Lyme disease and BSE, as well as the aforementioned HIV virus.

Another area of medicine that has utilised the benefits of monoclonal antibodies is therapeutic treatments. As these antibodies can attach themselves to harmful cells through a variety of mechanisms, they open up the possibility to block cells from multiplying while stimulating an immune response, thus providing relief from a condition and a cure in some cases.

Cancer is also a viable target for monoclonal antibodies, as the specific nature of these proteins allows scientists to develop medicines for stimulating an immune response to tumour cells and other harmful cancer cells. Currently, there are a number of FDA approved treatments of this kind on the market, including medicines that involve transporting radioactive toxins via antibodies directly to disease-causing cells.

What is the Future for Monoclonal Antibodies?

Treatments are still being developed using monoclonal antibodies today, owing to their effectiveness at targeting specific proteins while leaving healthy cells unharmed. In particular, MAbs represent a viable option for use in the development of new cancer immunotherapy treatments, which aim to improve a patient's immune system response to fighting cancer. The epidermal growth factor receptor is one protein molecule researchers in Cuba are targeting with MAbs, due to the presence of this protein on many types of cancer cells.

MAbs are also constantly being considered as a possibility for treating degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, which is a medical condition society is having to increasingly deal with as the average age goes up. The issue of new epidemics such as avian influenza and the Ebola virus may also require that new MAb medicines be developed in the future; MAbs were strongly considered as a treatment for Ebola in 2014, at the height of the African, and potentially worldwide, epidemic.

Other debilitating conditions such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis are currently the focus of MAb research efforts, as are common conditions such as diabetes and persistent migraines.

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