Antibodies are a vital weapon in our immune system’s arsenal. Now we can redesign them like never before to boost our ability to fight cancer and viruses like HIV, says immunologist Daniel M. Davis
THE wonders of the world tend to be quite conspicuous. You can hardly miss the Grand Canyon, say, or the Great Pyramid of Giza. You could, however, be forgiven for overlooking the great wonders of human biology. It is easy to take the brain or DNA for granted. And yet over the past year or so, living through the coronavirus pandemic, we have all come to better appreciate the marvel that is our immune system, a vast and diverse array of cells and molecules that defend us against viruses and other invaders.
One molecule in particular has taken centre stage: the antibody. These Y-shaped proteins, which we produce in response to infection, are a vital part of our defences. They are also the basis of many of the most important medicines. But we haven’t exhausted their potential yet – far from it.
Typically, we have used antibodies in medicine pretty much as they come in nature, even if we select and mass-produce the versions we need. Now we can do much more. By manipulating genes in the cells that produce antibodies, or splicing together fragments of the proteins themselves, we can re-engineer their structures to create bespoke immune molecules.
In my lab at the University of Manchester, UK, we use super-resolution microscopes to see how the immune system works on a molecular scale. We are just one of thousands of labs doing such work, which is fuelling a new age of antibody engineering. With researchers currently producing all kinds of tailor-made antibodies – from those that lure cancer cells to their doom to those that can actually infiltrate cells …