Understanding Monoclonal Antibodies – HealthyWomen

Gretchen Klee Moses, 50, is a special education teacher in Wheaton, Illinois. She’s also a transplant recipient and 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 difficult to fight an infection like Covid,” Musa said, adding that while immunosuppressants are important for certain functions, they can also reduce the amount of protection that vaccines provide.

Knowing that her body may need help fighting Covid-19, Musa used monoclonal antibody therapy as a preventative in March 2022 to reduce her risk of infection. When I eventually got Covid in October 2022, Moses was given a different monoclonal antibody for treatment.

“I am very fortunate to catch Covid as late as I did, after many rounds of vaccines and boosters [preventive] Musa said. She was able to get through the infection without serious problems.

Much emphasis has been placed on vaccines to prevent Covid, and rightfully so; Vaccination is one of the best things you can do to protect yourself and others from getting sick. But for people like Moses, vaccinations may not be enough.

Fortunately, monoclonal antibody therapies can be a powerful weapon in the battle against Covid, and some can be used to prevent and treat other health conditions as well.

Understanding monoclonal antibodies can help you decide whether they’re an option to protect yourself from disease or help you recover from it.

What are monoclonal antibodies?

Monoclonal antibodies are proteins made in the lab by scientists that are meant to act like human antibodies. Antibodies are proteins in your immune system that are designed to recognize specific targets, which may be present in viruses or even cancer cells. Monoclonal antibodies attach to these targets and help the body’s immune system fight infection. They are called “monoclonals” because these antibodies created in the lab are copies (exact copies) of one of the antibodies.

How are monoclonal antibodies used, and who can help?

Monoclonal antibodies are used to treat or prevent a 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 children and healthy adults, but it can be very dangerous for young children and the elderly. Up to 80,000 children under 5 years of age are hospitalized with RSV in the United States each year.

Christine McKenna’s son, Matthew, was born with a birth defect that damaged his lungs, causing diseases that can affect breathing, such as RSV, especially dangerous to him. The RSV-blocking monoclonal antibody was started at 4 months of age on the pediatrician’s recommendation.

McKenna said she works in health care, but she still didn’t know that monoclonal antibodies could be used to prevent RSV before Matthew’s pediatrician told her. “It was a gift to us because we were so concerned about RSV, given its condition,” she said.

Now, at 5 months old, Matthew has just received his second round of therapy, and McKenna is thankful for the protection he provides.

Monoclonal antibodies can be useful in strengthening the immune system of patients. For example, certain types of cancer can be treated with monoclonal antibodies because they target cancer cells and help destroy them.

They can also be used to treat autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which occurs 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 of 11 countries found that monoclonal antibodies may protect people from infection with HIV.

For some, monoclonal antibodies may be the only option for preventing the disease. This includes people who are allergic to vaccines and people whose immune systems do not react strongly enough after vaccination.

How do monoclonal antibodies help treat COVID-19?

Because monoclonal antibodies are used to target regions of the virus that causes Covid-19 (called SARS-Co-V-2) that change over time, monoclonal antibody therapies must also evolve to work well.

As of now, there are no monoclonal antibodies authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat or prevent Covid because they do not provide sufficient protection against the current variants. However, research on monoclonal antibodies is being done in the future because there are a large number of people who could benefit from them.

This resource was created with the support of Invivyd, Inc.

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