Sabin Russell Science Writer


Dueling Bugs: Giga- and Nano-scale Ant-iBodies

Menzel 3, aka The Ant Nebula

Well, it is good to be back in action. The engineers at Network Solutions finally (see prior post) got on the case, and solved it. For the techies out there, here is the Dx/Rx: "Our Engineers have identified and corrected the issue of file permissions being set incorrectly for file uploads." A Hearty Thank You! (freelance wages) to them.

As a reward to my patient followers, I am presenting here on the left, Planetary Nebula Menzel 3, AKA the Ant Nebula, in honor of our recent bug. Truth be told, it was my first attempt to upload this cosmological bug that seemed to have brought about the recent unpleasantness. A non-scientist would suspect some sort of Karmic connection; a Jungian, a bit of synchronicity; a scientist, an association, not causality, and undoubtedly the result of chance.  I, of course, attribute it to bad luck and the gremlin that sits on my shoulder, ready to pounce and foul up my bytes whenever he/she/it is hungry or feeling frisky.

My original intent in posting the beautiful Ant Nebula -- a computer composite of Hubble images produced by the Hubble Heritage project -- was to say something profound about the the tendency of nature to produce varying degrees of dual symmetry, in this case the structure of the death throes of a star quite like our own Sun. That was meant to be a rough segway to the posting of my latest freelance work, a piece in MIT's Technology Review (June 2010) about dual specific antibodies.

Antibodies are Y-shaped structures, about 10 nanometers long, that are one of the immune system's primary weapons against invading...bugs.  My piece, commissioned by the good folks at Technology Review, was to look at a technology developed by Genentech Inc. scientist Germaine Fuh and her team to cause a single antibody to attach to two different targets. These dual-specific antibodies were chosen by the editors of Technology Review as one of the TR 10 -- the top ten emerging technologies of the year.

 The dual action takes place at the tips of the symetrical Y-shaped wings, a region called the paratope, which connects to the...epitope -- a receptor on a cell or bacteria or virus. Drugs can be made by producing engineered antibodies that latch onto specific receptors, such at the HER2 receptor on the surface of some breast cancer cells. The receptor acts like a faulty accelerator pedal on a 2010 Prius. Your breast cancer cells just take off. The Genentech drug that blocks this accelerator pedal, Herceptin, is worth billions. So is another monoclonal antibody, Avastin, that jams a mechanism cancer cells use to promote blood vessel growth -- angiogenesis.

 Fuh's team tinkered with the tips of the Herceptin and Avastin antibodies and produced a new antibody that attaches to either receptor -- a two-for-one drug. The cynic in me would say this is just a scheme to stretch the patent life of the two drugs, which last year generated worldwide sales of $11 billion for Roche, the Swiss drug company that now owns Genentech. Probably true, but the combined drug might also genuinely work better at half the cost to produce than using both in the same patient. And the real story is that Fuh's technology can be applied to entirely new monoclonal drugs, so you might be able to produce a beneficial two-for-one combination antibody right out of the chute, which would require only one regulatory process instead of at least two.

I've written all this so you won't have to read the article itself, but it's short, and if you want to see it, here is the link:

Photo credit: From Astronomy Picture of the Day, April 25, a composite image produced by the Hubble Heritage Project. Credit:  R. Sahai (JPL) et al., Hubble Heritage Team, ESA, NASA.

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Posted by Sabin Russell

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