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Animal-derived antibody debate

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

An article, just published in a leading scientific journal, by a group of Spanish biomedical institutions and EARA, claims the EU Commission has ‘distorted perceptions’ over its proposed replacement of the use of animal-derived antibodies with alternatives.

The article, in Nature Methods (NM), is in response to the EU Commission’s Reference Laboratory for Alternatives to Animal testing (EURL ECVAM) report, released in May this year, which states that the use of animal-derived antibodies for treatments of diseases, including Covid-19, are no longer fit for purpose, and that relevant funding bodies should avoid financing such projects.

Published alongside a Nature correspondence article, the ECVAM report goes on to recommend that the scientific community moves as soon as possible towards non-animal derived methods.

The article, compiled by signatories of the Spanish Transparency Agreement, administered by COSCE (Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies), details the need for animal-derived antibodies, and their benefits over their non-animal derived counterparts. In particular, during the Covid-19 crisis, animal-derived antibodies provide more information about how the body will react to a virus, and the immune response produced during vaccine development, than non-animal alternatives are currently able to offer.

US President, Donald Trump, is currently undergoing Covid-19 treatment with an antibody cocktail which contains antibodies developed in mice.

Antibodies are small proteins produced naturally by the body in response to a foreign object, such as a virus, and form a critical part of the immune response to disease. In biomedical research, antibodies are used widely as tools to help recognise proteins, diagnose conditions or even as a treatment for diseases such as arthritis and cancer. See also EARA feature article.

The rebuttal also questions the ECVAM recommendation and states: “In our view, however, both the European Commission (EURL ECVAM) document and the published documents contain distorted perceptions of the current possibilities for antibodies of non-animal origin.”

Non-animal antibody generation heavily relies on the development of substantial libraries of sequences (phage display), which can be time-consuming and expensive to compile. The authors point out that developing reliable antibodies which are equal to those available through animal-derived methods will require greater funding and training to become more widely accessible, particularly in the case of smaller research laboratories.

Although non-animal derived antibodies are suitable in some cases, the authors conclude that currently they are not in a position to fully replace the animal-derived methods available and remark that, “further development is still needed that requires substantial experimentation, time, and resources.”

Commenting on the NM article, EARA executive director, Kirk Leech, said: ““Animal-derived antibodies have brought huge benefits in fighting disease. The Spanish biomedical community has expressed very important concerns about the viability of a switch away from them that must be taken into consideration by the EU Commission. EARA was happy to help raise these concerns.”

In fact, the report states that both methods of antibody development are complementary, and should instead be used alongside one another in order to avoid any detrimental impact to biomedical research in the near future.

The report features contributions from The Biomedical Research Centre (CINBIO), University of Vigo; Institute of Biomedical Research in Malaga (IBIMA), University of Malaga; University Hospital Marqués de Valdecilla-IDIVAL; Severo Ocha Centre for Molecular Biology (CMBSO-CSIC/UAM); National Centre for Biotechnology (CNB-CSIC), and EARA.


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