The future of medicine may lie in an unexpected place: within the immune system of a llama. The Wall Street Journal reports that scientists in Brussels are using llamas to develop antibody–based medications for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. Antibodies are known as the “soldiers of the immune system” and can be programmed to target disease–causing proteins. Llamas, camels, and their relatives create extremely small antibodies, which scientists hope can be used to burrow into the crevices of a cancerous tumor or a pre–arthritic joint—places that conventional antibodies are too large to enter.
At the forefront of this research is Ablynx. The Belgian biopharmaceutical company is developing 24 medications using llama antibodies, which they refer to as “nanobodies.” In December, Ablynx reported positive results in Phase 1b trials of ALX–0081, an anti–thrombotic nanobody for patients with acute coronary syndrome. The company is partnered with pharmaceutical giant Wyeth to create a nanobody drug for rheumatoid arthritis that could potentially replace Enbrel, Wyeth’s popular TNF–blocker arthritis medication. Ablynx also recently announced an extension of its research alliance with Novartis, a partnership that began in late 2005.
Antibody research is currently taking place at a variety of international companies. Symphogen of Denmark recently raised approximately $44 million in financing to mature their pipeline of antibody therapies, particularly in the oncological field. MAT Biopharma and Natimmune A/S are also working on antibody treatment for cancer patients. Haptogen (acquired by Wyeth in 2007) is exploring the properties of shark antibodies, while InterVexion Therapeutics is developing medications for substance abuse and addiction. While researchers are enthusiastic about the potential of nanobodies, the first drugs are still years away from the consumer market. Further research is needed to ultimately determine whether nanobody–based therapeutics will be an effective treatment for humans.