To understand what monoclonal antibodies are and how they act, it is important to know some basic notions about the functioning of the immune system and in particular of antibodies, specialized cells that the body uses to attack microorganisms and in general any foreign agent (antigen) . There are many antibodies that make up the body’s defense system, and they all have the characteristic of being very specific, since each one attacks a single antigen. In addition, this attack strengthens the body’s resistance to future infections.
However, cancer cells have developed inside the body, so the immune system does not recognize them as foreign and allows their proliferation. Even so, the advance registered in the knowledge of the genetic characterization of the tumors has allowed to identify a series of genetic mutations that are specific to each tumor and that can serve as a target for antibodies developed in the laboratory with that specificity, that is, the of attacking only cells that express a specific genetic mutation, causing its destruction.
More and more monoclonal antibodies are used in the treatment of cancer and other diseases in which a causal factor in the identification of specific genetic alterations has been determined. Only in cancer at least six monoclonal antibodies are used and there are many others in the development phase that will soon reach the market. Some types of breast cancer, lung cancer, melanoma, leukemia and lymphomas can already be treated with these specific medications, which are at the base of what has been called custom treatments.
These types of medications are produced using human and mouse cells. Cells containing the antigens against which it is desired to act (the mutated gene) are injected into the animal to subsequently obtain the cells that produce the antibodies and fuse them, one by one, with diseased cells, which are then cloned and from which selects the antibody that acts with greater energy against the chosen antigen. A genetic engineering process is then carried out that allows part of these cells to be replaced with human material to prevent the body from activating an immune reaction against the monoclonal antibody, reducing its effectiveness.
All these drugs act, therefore, against what is called specific molecular targets, enveloping the body’s cells that express it differently and causing their death selectively. Precisely, the big difference with conventional chemotherapy that is applied in cancer treatments is that it does not act on all of the body’s cells, so its adverse effects are minor.