The tool in this case is a process — the use of custom-built antibodies. Like the antibodies in your body that help fight off disease, these customized research antibodies are also designed to home in on a specific target, this time to help scientists decipher the invisible workings of a cell.
Dozens of companies around the world produce more than 2.5 million varieties of these antibodies. It’s a billion-dollar industry.
The antibodies may be genetically engineered, or they may be produced by injecting a substance into an animal, and then filtering and purifying (from the animal’s blood) antibodies produced in reaction to that injected substance.
Unfortunately, these commercial antibodies often don’t work as advertised. One common and serious problem is that they latch onto the wrong target — fooling the researchers who are putting them to use.
In one iconic case, a multi-million dollar effort to produce a test to guide treatment for melanoma fell apart, after the researcher conducting the cancer study discovered that his antibodies were utterly unreliable.
Scientists are becoming increasingly aware of this problem and increasingly concerned. A surprisingly large share of research conducted in one lab can’t be reproduced elsewhere, and “antibodies are a very large contributor to the problem,” says biochemist and biophysicist Dr. Joshua LaBaer, who heads the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.
LaBaer was among the scientists gathered in Asilomar, Calif., this week to talk about ways to make the antibodies more reliable, and the research more rigorous.
Last year, some researchers concerned about iffy antibodies came up with a set of guidelines for how companies can validate their antibodies to make sure they perform as advertised.
These ideas were “very much supported at the conference,” says microbiologist Mathias Uhlen from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, who chaired last year’s international working …