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"'Paca Punch" -- The Discovery Files

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Mini-antibodies found in the blood of camels, alpacas and llamas, shrunk further to create so-called "nanobodies," may help solve a problem in the cancer field: making specific types of T-cell therapies work in solid tumors. Scientists used these nanobodies -- which resemble antibodies in human blood -- to enhance the targeting abilities of the T-cell therapies. In tests with mice, the antibodies helped weaken the blood supply to tumors and targeted tumor-protecting proteins, thereby successfully curbing melanoma and colon cancer.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Phe-llama-nal.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

Way back in 1989 at the Free University of Brussels, two undergrads were asked to test samples of frozen blood serum from camels. (Sound effect: camel sound) This mundane task became a lot more interesting when they came across a previously unknown type of antibody. A miniaturized version of a human antibody subsequently confirmed to also be in the blood of alpacas and llamas. (Sound effect: alpaca, llama sounds) A patent was granted and held by the Belgian team, but not much happened for a few decades, 'til the patent expired (Sound effect: Pac Man death sound) and numerous other researchers got their hands on it.

Including a team from Boston Children's Hospital and MIT that wondered if these mini-antibodies -- shrunk further to create nanobodies -- could be used to make patients' own killer T-cells better at attacking solid cancerous tumors.

In tests with mice, the T-cells the team studded with nanobodies weakened the blood supply to tumors and targeted tumor-protecting proteins -- successfully curbing melanoma and colon cancer.

This promising therapy is the work of many researchers, including one who ironically died of cancer in 2018. Before her death she would make several trips to harvest blood from two alpacas as part of the process. All along, the alpacas, "Bryson" and "Sanchez," never knew of their valuable contribution to medical science. They're alpacas.

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at nsf.gov or on our podcast.

 
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