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An-tee-bodies: T-shirts in celebration of the antibody

Antibodies are always looking out for us, and this week we're taking a closer look at them. Antibody-based tests, vaccines, and drugs have dramatically influenced American history, culture, and quality of life. Smallpox, polio, and syphilis, once constant threats, are now distant memories for many, and recent antibody-based therapies continue to further the human battle against disease. This is the second post in our series. Read the first on home pregnancy tests.

When did you first learn about your immune system? Maybe you have childhood memories of being vaccinated, hearing about the protection your body was building through antibodies. Perhaps you can recall middle or high school biology diagrams depicting the whole immune system: antigens, T-cells, B-cells, and little Y-shaped drawings of helpful antibodies formed to tag a specific threat to the body.

For scientists throughout the 20th century, studying the immune system not only led to a greater understanding of how our bodies fight foreign invaders, but opened the door to new kinds of treatments that harnessed antibodies for medicine.

Antibodies as cures are nothing new. Since the late 19th century, scientists understood that a protective and curative power from disease existed in the blood of creatures that had been exposed to toxins or illness. They applied this knowledge to create a treatment known as serum therapy. The mechanism was simple: harvest blood serum from animals that had been exposed to a disease and inject it in people suffering from that disease. While researchers didn't fully understand how the cure worked (it essentially transferred antibodies from one creature to another), their work did inspire a hope for the future. Researchers theorized that eventually they would be able to create a "magic bullet" from customized antibodies perfectly suited to attacking foreign invaders.

Three amber-colored bottles that resemble upside down bells with handles. They have yellowed labels on them.

By 1975 the invention of monoclonal antibody (mAb) technology made that dream real. At the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, researchers César Milstein and Georges Köhler developed a technique for creating cells that could pump out streams of identical antibodies, custom-selected to attach to specific targets. This long-awaited breakthrough led to a variety of uses for monoclonal antibodies, some of which can be seen in the museum's collections.

The first boom in the use of mAbs was in diagnostics, or disease detection. The designer proteins improved everything from pregnancy tests to tests for early signs of kidney damage.

A thin, opaque, nearly flat plastic package lies next to a plastic instrument with green detailing that is covered in text. The object resembles a razor in shape and there is a white strip inside of it.

It would take years for mAbs to become successful drugs, but, by 2016, five of the world's ten most-profitable drugs were antibody-based. The museum has several examples in its collections, including Orthoclone, the first FDA-approved monoclonal drug, and Herceptin, a groundbreaking breast cancer drug.

A small, clear bottle with blue text standing upright tapers to a dropper shape at the top. It may have clear liquid in it.

Although one would expect to find mAbs represented in drugs and diagnostics, you might be surprised to know the museum has T-shirts featuring them as well. In 2013 the museum collected a number of T-shirts from the biotech company Genentech as an example of the firm's unique corporate culture. From its earliest days, Genentech employees celebrated projects by making team shirts. Designs featured slogans like "clone or die." As many of its recent drugs are mAbs, the Y-shaped proteins get a shout-out in T-shirts as well.

Combined images of a white shirt with an illustration of an upstretched fist holding an object looking like metal bars, then a close up of the shirt illustration.

This image celebrates Rituxan, the first monoclonal antibody drug produced by Genentech, in partnership with IDEC Pharmaceuticals. Rituxan was also the first mAb approved for cancer treatment. Cancer treatment had long been a goal for mAbs. Researchers hoped the targeted therapies would mean fewer side effects than traditional treatments, which damage both healthy and cancerous cells.

The image of a fist grasping an antibody works on two levels. It can be read both as a celebratory fist pump and an image of long-awaited control over these powerful proteins.

Juxtaposed image of a long-sleeved white tshirt with an illustration on the chest and a closeup of that illustration

Antibodies normally have two arms, which give them their Y-shape. However, because double-armed antibodies proved ineffective at capturing c-Met, researchers designed MetMAb to only have a single arm. The green stripes on the fisherman's arm represent a schematic design of that single-armed protein. This fun depiction of an antibody at work was designed by Katie Schwall—daughter of Ralph Schwall, one of the scientists who worked on the MetMAb project.

Although, as historian of medicine Lara V. Marks argues in The Lock and Key of Medicine, mAbs can be seen as a forgotten story of the biotech boom, we're trying to give them their time in the spotlight. If this has whetted your appetite for mAb history, check out our recently launched Antibody Initiative Website exploring antibody-based collections at the museum.

Mallory Warner is a curatorial assistant in the Division of Medicine and Science.

On Monday, October 16, 2017, join us to learn about the vaccines of Dr. Maurice Hilleman. They changed American history—yet few of us now know his name.

The Antibody Initiative was made possible through the generous support of Genentech.