BioPharm: What are some of the key methods used in antibody research?
John Morrow: One area that's encouraging is the study of libraries or genetic databases (for genomes) looking for unique gene sequences to develop better diagnostic tools for infectious disease. A current approach is to use either genomics or proteomics, going after markers using antibodies or PCR technology to identify the sequences.For example, say you're dealing with maybe ten or twenty different bacterial strains that are co-existing in the gut and one of these is a pathogen, and it's the one you want to get a diagnostic test for, but they're all quite similar. They all have fairly similar properties; maybe they're members of the same genus. So you look for unique gene sequences and you make peptides from these gene sequences that are specific to your target organism. Then you can make antibodies to those peptides and screen the antibodies to see if they uniquely identify your organism.
Biopharm: Isn't this technique used in cancer research?
JM: All cancer genes are present in all the cells of the body, but they may be over-expressed in a cancer cell. You can look for them by screening the genomes and looking for unique sequences. You look for those, and then once again you make a peptide from one of the gene sequences — not the whole gene — so you don't have to produce the whole protein, but you just get a particular peptide that respresents a good target. In many cancer cells, [certain] receptors that are over-expressed. So what you do is identify the ligand for that receptor, then make a peptide from part of that ligand that will fit into the receptor and target the cancer cell.
BioPharm: What other areas of study are getting more attention these days?
At this time, numerous companies have FDA approval on antibodies, so they're doing lots of antibody therapies. But to my knowledge, you don't get cures with these antibodies, you get some remission of the cancer and patients can live longer. But you're not getting complete, permanent remission.
I think the idea of using various kinds of toxins is coming back now, and it has a bit more credibility than it did originally. Also, the companies that have all these antibodies produced maybe a hundred different antibodies before they picked the one that they use in their therapy. So they've got a whole stable full of antibodies that didn't work therapeutically, as naked antibodies that they can now conjugate to various kinds of toxins, stabilize the sequences, to make them more robust and get them to really perform well. In the next few years, that area that will really take off.