Even though we don’t feel it or notice it, each minute, our bodies’ immune systems are hard at work eliminating abnormal cells, viruses, and bacteria that can cause abnormalities within our bodies including cancer, disease, and other infections. The immune system, a complex network of cells, organs and lymph nodes connected by the lymphatic system, works to keep the human body healthy. Its main functions are to identify and protect the body from foreign invaders.
Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, media outlets have highlighted the immunocompromised population quite frequently. This population of people are increasingly vulnerable to the highly contagious virus. Patients that are considered immunocompromised or have a weakened immune system due to medications they are taking or illnesses that they are enduring, may not be protected from contracting COVID-19 and progressing hospitalization, for example, even if they are up to date on their vaccines. This vulnerable population is more likely to get very sick from the virus as well. For background, patients over the age of 65, or those that have, for example, diabetes, obesity, a lung condition, cancer, etc. are all considered immunocompromised and vulnerable.
A Novel, Safe Way to Ensure Protection
For context, according to Yale Medicine, it is estimated that about three percent of the United States population is considered moderately-to-severely immunocompromised, making them more at risk for serious illness if they contract COVID-19, or other viruses. It is imperative to consider prevention options for this vulnerable population—not only for COVID-19, but for cancer and other diseases as well.
That’s where monoclonal antibodies come in. The first monoclonal antibody was generated in 1975 and was first licensed in 1986. According to the National Library of Medicine, “The field of monoclonal antibody development represents a novel way in which to target specific mutations and defects in protein structure and expression in a wide range of diseases and conditions.” They work as both a therapeutic and a preventative and are produced in a laboratory to mimic the body’s natural immune response to a specific target, such as COVID-19.
Immunocompromised populations typically don’t generate an immune response to vaccines even after multiple shots and boosters. Therefore, they need other forms of protection from the virus. Monoclonal antibodies are highly effective and designed to block the virus from attaching to human cells, making it more difficult for the virus to reproduce and cause harm—they have neutralizing capabilities. Protection can be gained by using a long-acting monoclonal antibody treatment. Monoclonals can provide up to six months of protection and are safe and effective, whereas antivirals can target not only unhealthy cells, but healthy cells as well, and are not designed to eradicate the virus directly.
Using the Human Immune System to Fight Cancer
It is extremely important to only focus on treating unhealthy cells and to leave the healthy cells alone—especially when tending to cancer patients. Monoclonal antibodies are used to treat many cancer types. Patients can receive the antibodies through an infusion, which are used alone or in combination with other cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. Antibodies treat patients in a very specific and targeted manner. Targeted therapies are known for better efficacy and are associated with fewer side effects during treatment compared to traditional approaches and therapies that can cause lingering side effects, since they focus on a broader scope within the body.
Some monoclonal antibodies are even used for immunotherapy because they help turn the immune system against cancer. It is possible for monoclonal antibodies to mark cancer cells so that the immune system can better distinguish and destroy them. Antibodies that bring various tumor-killing cells (made from the human immune system) directly to the targeted cancer cells specifically, are associated with higher efficacy and lower toxicity compared to existing therapies. It is also possible to attach a chemotherapy drug, for example, to a monoclonal antibody, which are called antibody-drug conjugates. This approach avoids most healthy cells (the goal), while delivering the chemotherapy directly to the cancer cell. In short, treatment methods combined with monoclonal antibodies are used to kill the cancer cell directly. As a reminder, those that are undergoing cancer treatment are considered immunocompromised and vulnerable. Therefore, it is essential that patients are aware of the resources available to them as well as the advancements that have been made in therapeutics—these therapies save lives.
Ongoing Support for the Vulnerable Population is Needed
There are a variety of ways to support those who are immunocompromised, especially during the ongoing pandemic and even as it becomes an endemic. In addition to prioritizing the use of preventative treatments such as long-acting monoclonals, it is important that a plethora of information/education is available for immunocompromised individuals about the availability and access to monoclonal treatment options.
Physicians should also be aware of and educated on the benefits of monoclonal antibody treatments, with a specific emphasis on how the use of the treatments can decrease hospitalization rates, estimated to be 80-90% lower with antibodies, and ultimately reduce fatalities significantly.Antibody therapies for infectious diseases are a relatively new treatment modality overall, so education is needed to inform physicians of their effectiveness and high safety profile when used early in the treatment process. One could show the therapeutic’s impact on preventing progression to hospitalization as well its use as a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). Additionally, when dealing with future variants, monoclonal antibodies serve as a better therapeutic due to their ability to specifically attack the foundation of the virus, which makes them a future-proofed option. At least 10 million people in the United States alone are considered vulnerable. The use of antibody therapies will have a lasting, immeasurable impact around the world—this population needs our protection.
Ian Chan is the co-founder and CEO of Abpro, a biotechnology company aimed to improve the lives of mankind facing severe and life-threatening diseases with next-generation antibody therapies. Ian has been with Abpro since its inception in 2007, when he and his brother, Eugene, founded the company. Ian received an AB from Brown University and MBA from Harvard University.