Mimicking nature, with a few tweaks along the way, has been extended to another domain by UC Irvine chemists. They’re developing artificial antibodies, the proteins that neutralize disease-causing microbes and other intruders in the bloodstream.
Natural antibodies can be a bit fragile and have proven extremely expensive to produce for medical treatment. So a few years ago, UCI researchers asked a key question: Could they employ polymers to create artificial versions – in other words, plastic antibodies?
The first test of the idea zeroed in on honeybee venom. The scientists developed a synthetic nano-size particle that binds to the toxin in bee venom, the same way antibodies bind to foreign intruders. And it worked. Mice given lethal doses of bee venom, then treated with injections of the plastic antibody, saw a huge increase in their survival rate. By engineering artificial antibodies that could bind to almost anything, these scientists offer tantalizing prospects: plastic antibodies binding to receptors on cell surfaces, for example, to switch off blood-vessel formation in tumors, starving them of nutrients.
Researchers are pursuing not only medical applications for artificial antibodies, but also ways to use them as protein purification systems – binding to desired proteins and culling them from a stew of ingredients. Several companies are now leading the way to explore potentially life-saving, and lucrative, uses for these tiny bits of engineered biology.