Monoclonal antibodies are proteins made in a lab. They are engineered to act like natural antibodies, which are an essential part of the immune system; being able to create them outside of the body allows scientists to tailor treatments for various conditions, including cancer.

Monoclonal antibodies get their name from the fact that they are all exact clones of a single antibody.


Antibodies are proteins that help defend our bodies against foreign substances like viruses and bacteria or eliminate damaged cells such as cancer cells. After fighting off the invader, they circulate in the blood and protect against future exposures to that invader.

Monoclonal antibodies are designed to act just like the natural antibodies produced by the immune system.

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How Antibodies Work

Antibodies are shaped like an upside-down Y. Each leg of the Y has an antigen-binding fragment on it, which is like a key that only fits into a specific antigen or invader, such as a specific type of virus.

The antibodies circulating through your body look for antigens. Once they connect to their target antigen, they attract other parts of the immune system to fight off the invader.

Antibodies responding to covid-19 coronavirus, illustration KATERYNA KON/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images


Cancer Treatment

Monoclonal antibodies function in different ways. Some flag cancer cells so that the immune system can target them more easily, while others trigger a response that destroys the cancer cell membrane.

Monoclonal antibodies can prevent blood vessel growth or block specific proteins to prevent cancer cells from growing, or they can directly attack cancer cells. They can also block inhibitors the immune system creates so it does not get overactive, encouraging it to work against cancer cells in the body.

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Delivering Medication

Monoclonal antibodies can also deliver medications due to their ability to connect directly to cancer cells.

For example, scientists have genetically engineered monoclonal antibodies to carry a small radioactive particle and deliver it directly to cancer cells, which minimizes the damage to healthy cells that traditional radiation can cause. Monoclonal antibodies can also deliver chemotherapy directly to cancer cells, avoiding healthy cells and potentially making treatment side effects more bearable.

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Other Diseases

Monoclonal antibodies are useful in fighting cancer, but they are effective at treating other conditions, too, including autoimmune diseases, organ transplant rejection, eye conditions, high cholesterol, migraines, osteoporosis, inflammatory disorders, and nervous system disorders.

The number of approved monoclonal antibody treatments has increased dramatically since the first one was approved in 1986.

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Common Side Effects

Although they mimic natural antibodies found in the body, monoclonal antibody treatment has some side effects. The most common are diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, skin rashes, allergic reactions, and low blood pressure.

Some people may also experience flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, fatigue, and muscle aches and pains.

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Serious Side Effects

Though rare, some people experience serious side effects from monoclonal antibody treatment, such as rapid and severe allergic reactions. These reactions normally occur during treatment or shortly after, so people receiving monoclonal antibody treatments are closely monitored.

Other serious but rare side effects include lung problems, serious infections, congestive heart failure, heart attack, high blood pressure, and internal bleeding.

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Getting Treatment

Most monoclonal antibody treatments are given through an IV. People receiving these treatments usually go to an infusion center where many patients get their treatment simultaneously while closely monitored by qualified staff. Medical professionals often watch people receiving their first treatment more closely to assess for allergic reactions.

Though not as common as an infusion, some monoclonal antibodies are given through a subcutaneous injection, using a small needle injected into the upper thigh or abdomen.

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Types of Monoclonal Antibodies

There are many monoclonal antibody treatments available to treat a wide range of cancers and autoimmune diseases. Cancers that may respond to this type of treatment include leukemia, non-small cell lung cancer, colorectal cancer, ovarian cancer, lymphoma, and malignant melanoma.

Multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile idiopathic arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease are just a few autoimmune conditions that monoclonal antibody treatment may effectively treat.

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COVID-19 and Monoclonal Antibodies

Monoclonal antibodies are also useful for treating COVID-19. Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services state that people who are at high risk of developing serious symptoms and who have had a positive test for COVID-19 within seven days or less, or have been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, may benefit from monoclonal antibody treatment.

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