We’re living through a global pandemic and one thing on everyone’s mind is antibodies. Everyone is talking about them, everyone is testing for them, and we’re all wondering what impact this focus will have on the future of medicine. What are antibodies, how do they help us fight diseases like COVID-19, and how do they work? Why are antibodies on everyone’s mind, and why are researchers devoting time and effort to antibody development?
- What Are Antibodies?
First, what are antibodies and how do they work? Researchers define antibodies as specialized cells that act specifically against antigens, generating an immune response. That might sound complicated but let’s break it down for you. Antibodies exist in your bloodstream and anytime they encounter a foreign body in your bloodstream — bacteria, viruses or other pathogens that aren’t supposed to be there, they bond to the cells.
The antibodies signal your white blood cells that there’s is something in your body that shouldn’t be, so the white blood cells can destroy it.
Your body learns each time it encounters a new pathogen. These antibodies remain in your bloodstream, responding any time you encounter these viruses or bacteria out in the world. That’s why once you’ve been sick with things like chickenpox, or received your measles/mumps/rubella vaccine, you won’t get sick again.
Antibodies don’t always stay in your bloodstream. Some, like tetanus antibodies, need to be refreshed every five to ten years to ensure that you’re protected. Others, like the antibodies you get from the flu vaccine, change every year so you need to renew your protections every flu season.
Our immune system is one of the most adaptive systems in the world and those antibodies are the first component of that system we discovered.
2. Natural vs Synthetic Antibodies
Most of the time, we develop antibodies naturally. We encounter a virus or bacteria, get sick and in response, our bodies produce antibodies. The goal of a vaccine is to produce those antibodies without the need for a full-blown illness. Vaccines introduce dead or mostly-dead viruses into your body. It’s enough to trigger the immune response and generate antibodies but not enough to make you sick.
Not all antibodies come from natural sources. Over the years, researchers have collected an enormous library of synthetic antibodies that are human-like and provide valuable resources for the creation of antibody drugs and vaccines. While you don’t generally find these in vaccines, they can help paint a clearer picture of what it takes to create antibodies and protect us from various viruses.
3. New Innovations in Antibody Generation
With the spread of the coronavirus, people are throwing around all sorts of scientific terms from antibodies to vaccines and herd immunity. Coronavirus, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, is inherently viral, meaning that it’s a prime candidate for vaccine creation. Traditionally, vaccine development can take between 10 and 15 years, and even with researchers trying to fast-track development, it may take quite a while before there’s an option available for the masses, and even longer for that option to be entirely safe.
Companies that have been working on antibody development for decades are suddenly finding new interest in their products. Companies that previously focused on antibody treatments for cancer patients are finding that their hard-earned expertise is more vital now than ever.
4. Antibodies on Our Minds
Media sources are of two minds when it comes to how we need to treat the coronavirus. Some are waiting for a vaccine no matter how long it takes, while others believe that we need to start getting sick to promote herd immunity.
The concept of herd immunity works in most scenarios. The idea is that when enough people are immune to a virus, it can’t spread any further. It’s also valuable to protect those that are immunocompromised or cannot receive vaccines for other health reasons. The flaw in this logic when it comes to the coronavirus is that we don’t understand enough about this new virus. Many people who caught COVID-19 early in the pandemic are still suffering side effects weeks or months after recovering. Dubbed the “coronavirus long-haulers” these individuals are still living with lung damage, fatigue and other symptoms, even though they test negative for the virus.
This is a novel coronavirus, meaning it’s brand new. That’s why it’s been able to take the world by storm. We’ve never experienced it before and even now, months into the pandemic, don’t fully understand the sort of damage that it can do. Even individuals who experienced mild cases or those that remained asymptomatic are sometimes experiencing these long-haul symptoms.
5. Duration of Antibody Responses
Another challenge researchers are facing is the duration of antibody response in the body. You have to get a flu shot every year because the antibodies change from season to season, and you have to get tetanus shot every five to 10 years because you need to refresh those antibodies to ensure that you’re protected. The fact that the coronavirus is so new means that we have no idea how long the antibodies remain in the bloodstream.
This uncertainty hasn’t stopped the FDA from issuing an emergency use authorization for the application of convalescent plasma to treat COVID patients. Convalescent plasma comes from people who have contracted the coronavirus and recovered. Their plasma contains the coronavirus antibodies that — while not a fool-proof treatment — can help infected patients recover faster and with fewer complications.
Those same antibodies may eventually play a role in the creation of a vaccine that will help to protect the global population.
6. The Future of Medicine
The beginning of this decade has turned into one of the most challenging in recent memory, especially in the field of medicine. We’re spending so much time playing catchup and trying to find ways to effectively treat this new virus that it’s easy to get overwhelmed grasping at any thread of hope that crosses your path. It’s a bit too early to tell how the study of antibodies will change the future of medicine but it’s a topic that is on everyone’s mind as we finish 2020 and hope against hope that things will start to go back to normal as we move into 2021.