Understanding Monoclonal Antibodies
Gretchen Klee Musa, 50, is a special education teacher in Wheaton, Illinois. She’s also a transplant recipient who has been taking immunosuppressants — drugs that weaken the immune system — to prevent her body from rejecting the transplant for more than seven years.
“They make it harder to fight infections such as Covid,” Musa said, adding that while immunosuppressants are important for certain functions, they can also lower the amount of protection offered by vaccines.
Knowing her body might need help to fight off Covid-19, Musa used a monoclonal antibody therapy as prevention in March 2022 to lower her risk of infection. When she did eventually get Covid in October 2022, Musa was given a different monoclonal antibody for treatment.
“I am very fortunate that I got Covid as late as I did, after so many rounds of vaccines, boosters and [preventive] antibodies,” Musa said. She was able to get through the infection without serious issues.
Much emphasis has been placed on vaccines for preventing Covid, and rightly so; getting vaccinated is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and others from getting sick. But for people like Musa, vaccines may not be enough.
Luckily, monoclonal antibody therapies can be a powerful weapon in the battle against Covid, and some of them can be used to prevent and treat other health conditions as well.
Understanding monoclonal antibodies can help you decide whether they might be an option to protect yourself from illness or help you recover from it.
What are monoclonal antibodies?
Monoclonal antibodies are proteins made by scientists in a lab that are meant to act like human antibodies. Antibodies are proteins in your immune system that are designed to recognize certain targets, which may be located on viruses or even cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies attach themselves to these targets and work to help your body’s immune system fight the infection. They are called “monoclonal” because these lab-created antibodies are clones (exact copies) of one antibody.
How are monoclonal antibodies used, and who can they help?
Monoclonal antibodies are used to treat or prevent a wide variety of health problems, including certain types of cancer, asthma, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Monoclonal antibodies have also been used to treat or prevent infections such as Covid-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV usually causes mild cold-like symptoms in older kids and healthy adults, but can be very serious for young children and older people. Up to 80,000 kids under 5 years old are hospitalized with RSV in the United States every year.
Christine McKenna’s son, Matthew, was born with a birth defect that damaged his lungs, making illnesses that can affect breathing, such as RSV, especially dangerous for him. He started monoclonal antibodies to prevent RSV at 4 months old on his pediatrician’s recommendation.
McKenna said she works in healthcare, yet she still didn’t know monoclonal antibodies could be used for preventing RSV before Matthew’s pediatrician told her. “It was like a gift to us because we were very concerned about RSV, given his condition,” she said.
Now 5 months old, Matthew just received his second round of treatment, and McKenna is grateful for the protection it provides.
Monoclonal antibodies can be helpful for boosting the immune systems of sick people. For example, certain types of cancer can be treated with monoclonal antibodies because they target and help destroy cancer cells.
They can also be used to treat autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which happen when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Monoclonal antibodies target proteins that play a role in this destruction.
Recently, a large study spanning 11 countries found that monoclonal antibodies may protect people from HIV infection.
For some, monoclonal antibodies may be the only option for preventing illness. This includes people who are allergic to vaccines and people whose immune systems don’t react strongly enough after getting vaccinated.
How do monoclonal antibodies help with Covid-19?
Because monoclonal antibodies are used to target areas on the virus that causes Covid-19 (called SARS-Co-V-2) that changes over time, monoclonal antibody treatments also have to evolve to work well.
As of now, no monoclonal antibodies are authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat or prevent Covid because they don’t offer enough protection against current variants. However, research on future monoclonal antibodies is being done since there is such a large number of people who could benefit from them.
This resource was created with support from Invivyd, Inc.
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