What has an antibody got to do with cancer?

antibody-surface-modelAntibodies, a lot of scientists are working on cancer treatments that use antibodies, but just what are they and what do they do?  There are now antibody treatments for several different cancers, in the NHS antibody treatments are most commonly used for breast and bowel cancer.

The two antibody treatments you are most likely to have heard of are herceptin (for treating breast cancer) and avastin (for treating bowel and some other types of cancer).

But just what is an antibody? An antibody is a Y shaped bit of protein.  Antibodies are small, you can’t see them with a normal microscope (unless they all clump together).  However, your body makes them all the time, in fact, as you are reading this, you will have thousands of different antibodies pumping round your body.  Every time your body needs to fight off an infection (a cough, a cold, an infected finger) your body makes antibodies to fight it.  This is the clever bit, each antibody is unique.  An antibody to fight a cold won’t be any good at fighting flu. Our body has developed this system, gradually, by evolution, over millions of years.

Just how easy is it to make an antibody?  Well, as I’ve said your body does it all the time, but it is much harder to make them in the laboratory, which is one of the reasons it costs the NHS about £10,000 a year, per patient on antibody therapy.

Can antibody therapies cure all cancers?  No.  Just as your own bodies antibodies are very specific (e.g. they can fight one type of cold, but not another) then antibodies produced in the lab only work on a small group of cancers that have the same antibody binding site. Much the same way as your front door key won’t unlock your car door.

To find out more about the different types of antibody treatment have a look at the Macmillan website here (and follow the links on the left)

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