By Julie Steenhuysen
CHICAGO, April 30 (Reuters) - A new process to extract and copy the essential elements of cells that make human antibodies has provided a shortcut to making targeted, infection-fighting proteins known as monoclonal antibodies, U.S. researchers said on Wednesday.
The process allowed them to make influenza-specific antibodies in as little as a month, and they said the discovery could lead new treatments for other infectious diseases such as hepatitis C, pneumococcal pneumonia or anthrax.
It could even be used in an influenza pandemic to protect health workers until a vaccine could be made, they said.
"With just a few tablespoons of blood, we can now rapidly generate human antibodies that can be used for immunization, diagnosis and treatment of newly emerging strains of influenza," said Patrick Wilson, an immunology researcher at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, whose study appears in the journal Nature.
"In the face of a disease outbreak, the ability to quickly produce infection-fighting human monoclonal antibodies would be invaluable," Wilson said in a statement.
Antibodies are immune system proteins that recognize and help orchestrate an immune attack on bacteria, viruses and parasites. Monoclonal antibodies are specially engineered to attack a certain protein.
But making them is laborious, involving sifting through white blood cells known as B cells to find the needed antibody or vaccinating mice and altering their antibodies to look like human antibodies. It can take years.
"A better approach would be to have a way to very quickly generate monoclonal antibodies at a very high efficiency," Wilson said in a telephone interview.
He said they had succeeded in doing so.
"We can go from vaccine to antibody in just a month. That is the surprise," Wilson said.
'BURST OF CELLS'
To make the antibodies, the researchers vaccinated volunteers against seasonal flu. Then they examined a type of immune system cell known as antibody-secreting plasma cells, which produce a surge of antibodies as part of an initial response to infection.
Wilson and colleagues were able to capture and purify these cells, and they found as many as 80 percent of these purified antibodies were flu-specific.
He said the finding could lead to emergency treatments for a pandemic influenza, or to treat people with seasonal flu.
"We now can take these cells and quickly go to antibodies," said Wilson, who worked on the project with scientists at Emory University in Atlanta.
While it has not yet been tested against potential pandemic strains of influenza, such as the H5N1 strain that causes bird flu, those studies are underway, Wilson said.
The process also could be used to make antibodies for hepatitis C or antibiotic-resistant infections or even for human immunodeficiency virus or HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
And the method could be used to generate fully human monoclonal antibodies for cancer and immune disease treatments such as Genentech Inc's DNA.N breast cancer drug Herceptin and Johnson & Johnson's (JNJ.N) Remicade for rheumatoid arthritis and other immune diseases.
There are more than 20 monoclonal antibody-based therapies approved in the United States, and hundreds more are in development. Most are made from mouse antibodies, which can cause an allergic reaction in some people.
"It allows the world to have a new opportunity to generate many antibodies to many different things," Wilson said. (Editing by Maggie Fox and Xavier Briand)