History of Monoclonal Antibodies

Like much in medical progress, the development of monoclonal antibodies has not been a straight line to good results. The technique brought a great deal of excitement at the outset, followed by disappointment. In recent years, however, the medical world has looked on MAb with renewed enthusiasm, as many of the problems encountered early on were resolved.

When Georges Kohler and Cesar Milstein invented monoclonal antibodies in 1975, they were unlocking a door science had been knocking on for the entire twentieth century. What the scientists (who received the Nobel Prize for their discovery) had done was to take a giant step toward creating a “magic bullet” first envisioned by another leading researcher with a Nobel on his resume. As early as 1900, Paul Ehrlich theorized that it should be possible to develop a compound that would target and kill specific disease cells, while leaving a patient’s normal cells unharmed. In his own distinguished career, Ehrlich put the idea to good effect, as he developed the first modern antibiotic, coined the term “chemotherapy,” and laid the clinical groundwork for penicillin and sulfa drugs, among many other achievements.

At its heart, the concept is a straightforward one. The devil, of course, was—and is—in the details. It would take science several more generations before it could devise a way to create and deliver those disease-defeating toxins with pinpoint precision on the cellular level.

Well before Kohler and Milstein’s work, scientists understood the potential for using antibodies to target a range of molecules that are unique to cancer cells. Antibodies, proteins that are essential components of the immune system, are produced by specialized cells in the blood known as B lymphocytes.