We are making huge strides forward in the fight against cancer, which is why there is now hope for many cancer patients who wouldn’t have had it in decades gone by. Many people with cancer are living longer, and increasing numbers are being cured or entering into remission. Nevertheless, cancer is still the leading cause of deaths in adults, responsible for around 30%, and it is estimated that approximately 76,000 Canadians died of cancer in 2014. This is why new treatments and continuing research is essential, and monoclonal antibodies are at the heart of this.
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What Are Monoclonal Antibodies?
Paul Ehrlich first suggested the idea of a ‘magic bullet’ for diseases back in 1908, and it won him a Nobel prize. Put simply, he believed that a specific compound could be found that would target and eliminate the organism that’s causing a particular disease. By the 1970s it was discovered that cancerous cells produce a single antibody, and over the next two decades the technique of creating humanised monoclonal antibodies was perfected. These are antibodies that are made by identical immune cells that are themselves cloned from a unique parent cell. In this way, they bind to the same epitope and can alter or purify the substance that they bind to.
Different Monoclonal Antibodies for Different Cancers
Immunotherapy is bringing very positive results for cancer treatment, and monoclonal antibodies are at the heart of this. As each monoclonal antibody attacks one particular type of protein, however, a different kind of monoclonal antibody is needed for each kind of cancer. Some monoclonal antibodies can produce significant side effects, which is why some of these cancer fighting antibodies are still at the research or development phases. But, as they become more widely available, the cancer fighting benefits they bring will become even more available.
Triggering the Immune System
There are three ways in which monoclonal antibodies are used to treat cancer patients. The first method is triggering the body’s natural immune system, by making it easier to identify the cancerous cells. Some cancerous cells, although abnormal, can be difficult for the body to detect. When monoclonal antibodies attach to them, the body can spot the cancerous cells and attack them using the natural immune system.
Blocking Cancerous Signals
Cancerous cells can divide rapidly, which is how they can attack the human body so quickly. Some monoclonal bodies have the ability to stop growth factor receptors from functioning correctly. This means that they can’t send their usual signal telling cells to divide. This method of using monoclonal antibody technology can be useful in the treatment of breast cancer, stomach cancer, and bowel cancer.
Drugs or radiation can be attached directly to some monoclonal antibodies such as Zevalin and Bexxar. This allows them to deliver the drug or radiation directly into contact with the cancerous cells, via infusion into a vein. This form of treatment is often used to fight Non Hodgkin Lymphoma and trials are being conducted into its efficacy against leukaemia. The fight against cancer continues, but monoclonal antibodies may yet help us win the war.