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Updated Oct. 7, 2021
When a bacteria, virus, parasite, or other foreign substance invades your body, it can trigger a response from your immune system to stop the invasion.
Your immune system can create antibodies, which are Y-shaped proteins that can help fight the foreign substance. These antibodies attach to the foreign invader or substance to block the invasion and help destroy the invaders.
In addition to fighting off an infection, antibodies create a level of protection against future infection.
Learn more about antibodies and how they work.
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How Do Antibodies Work?
Your body’s immune system includes a specialized type of white blood cell known as a B cell.
When something like bacteria or a virus enters your body, your immune system recognizes it as foreign.
The surfaces of these foreign substances have markers known as antigens. When a virus or other foreign substance enters your body for the first time, B cells create antibodies that target that specific antigen.
Antibodies move through your bloodstream and lymphatic system to find the antigens of the foreign substance. After antibodies bind to the antigen, they neutralize and destroy the invader.
Antibody production continues until the invading substance is eliminated.
Some antibodies can remain in your immune system. If you are exposed to that foreign substance again, those antibodies can reactivate to protect you. In other words, antibodies can provide immunity, keeping you safe from another infection from that organism for a period of time.
In some cases, your immune system may mistake healthy cells as foreign and attack them. This is known as an autoimmune response or autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of your body. The most common symptoms are redness, pain, and swelling. Doctors can prescribe medicine to treat your symptoms and control your immune response.
How Are Antibodies Used to Treat Disease?
Your body naturally produces antibodies against foreign substances in your body. But doctors and researchers can produce antibodies or use antibodies to treat the disease.
Scientists can discover and produce antibodies that bind to specific antigens found on foreign invaders or substances. These manufactured antibodies are known as monoclonal antibodies.
Monoclonal antibodies can be used against diseases ranging from cancer to the flu. They can be used alone or with other treatments.
As a treatment, monoclonal antibodies can help to boost your immune system or kill disease-causing cells. In some cases, they can even be effective in preventing disease.
Monoclonal antibodies are delivered through an intravenous (IV) line or injected under the skin. They have been successful in treating serious infections like the Ebola virus, and cancer, according to a report in Cancer Immunity.
In some cases, doctors can use the antibodies from people who have recovered from a disease to treat people who are sick with that disease. This process is known as convalescent plasma therapy.
In convalescent plasma therapy, people who have recovered from a disease may have antibodies in their blood. Their donated plasma can then be used to treat people who are ill.
The use of convalescent plasma dates back more than 100 years. More recently, it was used during the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009-10 and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The success of convalescent plasma therapy varies, but it has shown success against some diseases. In the case of COVID-19, an international trial that included researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC patients reported that convalescent plasma is not an effective treatment for COVID-19. Based on those results and the success of other COVID-19 treatments like monoclonal antibodies, UPMC no longer is using convalescent plasma therapy as a COVID-19 treatment.
How Is Treatment With Antibodies Different Than a Vaccine?
Antibody therapy can treat a current infection and in some cases can even prevent disease. However, an antibody therapy is not a vaccine.
Vaccines can contain a piece of a virus — either inactive virus or a live virus that can’t cause disease. Vaccines help the body to naturally produce antibodies to ward off disease and provide immunity.
For people currently battling a disease, antibody therapy can offer faster results. A vaccine takes longer to provide protection, and cannot help someone who is already ill. Antibody therapy also can provide treatment and prevention for people who do not respond well to vaccines, such as the elderly — a group particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.
In the long run, vaccines provide better protection than antibody therapy. While antibody therapy may provide immunity for weeks to months, vaccines can protect you from disease for years — or possibly a lifetime — and are easier to administer and less expensive.
UPMC has developed a potential COVID-19 drug from an antibody component
As part of research during the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and UPMC have isolated a tiny component of an antibody to create a drug that could treat or prevent COVID-19.
Scientists isolated a component of an antibody — 10 times smaller than the size of a normal antibody — that neutralizes the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. They used the component to create a drug, Ab8, a drug that could treat or prevent COVID-19.
So far, Ab8 has been highly effective in preventing and treating infection in mice and hamsters. Abound Bio, a newly formed company backed by UPMC, has licensed Ab8 for worldwide development. The drug must undergo human clinical trials before it can receive approval for clinical use by the Food and Drug Administration.
For more about Ab8, visit UPMC.com.
American Cancer Society, Monoclonal Antibodies and Their Side Effects. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/treatment-types/immunotherapy/monoclonal-antibodies.html
Encyclopedia Britannica, Antibody. https://www.britannica.com/science/antibody
Giuseppe Marano, et al, Blood Transfusion, Convalescent Plasma: New Evidence for an Old Therapeutic Tool? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4781783/
National Human Genome Research Institute, Antibody. https://www.genome.gov/genetics-glossary/Antibody
National Institutes of Health, Autoimmune Diseases. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/autoimmune-diseases#tab-overview
Andrew M. Scott, James P. Allison, and Jedd D. Wolchok, Cancer Immunity, Monoclonal Antibodies in Cancer Therapy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3380347/
Vanderbilt Institute for Infection, Immunology and Inflammation, Antibody Therapy vs. Vaccine. https://www.vumc.org/viiii/spotlight/antibody-therapy-vs-vaccine
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