SCIENCEY STUFF:

Immune To Every Disease? A Mimotope Masterclass.

They Could Be In Your Next Flu-Shot…

Diseases have always been an issue, and it doesn’t look like they’ll stop anytime soon.

No matter how we evolve, the hordes of viruses, bacteria, and who-knows-what roaming around the planet will evolve to match us.

No matter how hard we try to prevent them, pandemics will always happen. Not to mention diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes. They’re only getting worse. And if we don’t completely change how we approach them, they’ll never stop.

Science is trying to break us out of this vicious cycle. Here’s just one weapon we’re using to fight back against the growing threat of disease.

But that’s easier said than done.

The Immune System:

Most “germs” we see today are the product of eons of evolution — some of them have been adapting to their surroundings for billions of years longer than us. When the natural disparity between us and them is so huge, it gets pretty hard to compete.

It’s one of the reasons why millions of our ancestors died decades ago, from diseases we think of as trivial today. Diseases like smallpox — a virus so deadly that it killed over 300 million in the 1900’s alone. That’s more than twice as much as the death toll of both world wars combined.

Yet today, all you need is a vaccination to stop the disease in its tracks. The enormous leaps we’ve been making in medicine are have let us “outsmart” evolution. If it weren’t for our rapid growth in scientific knowledge, the human race probably wouldn’t have lasted for much longer.

Germs are getting stronger, but we aren’t. Pathogens we’ve known for centuries are starting to become resistant to antibiotics that have worked for centuries.

They’re becoming more contagious and getting deadlier. Yet the way we fight those diseases has been more or less the same since the beginning.

But before we start learning about a way we could leave , let’s cover the basics of how our immune system works — specifically the cellular beasts that we call our lymphocytes.

You probably know them as your T-cells and B-cells — but together, these two immune cells form the basis of our body’s defense against hostile substances (antigens).

While both come in a whole bunch of varieties, killer (cytotoxic) T-cells and regular (plasma) B-cells make up the majority of our body’s firepower against invaders:

Our T-Cells (the little bluish-purple ones) in action. Source

Simply put, T-cells are like any other cell in your body — except for two main differences. First off, our T-cells use special receptors to detect abnormalities in our own cells. Second, when their receptors locate a faulty cell, they kill it almost instantly. Pretty scary, huh?

On the other hand, B-cells specialize in dealing with outside antigens. Unlike T-cells though, they don’t destroy them directly. Every B-cell comes equipped with a set of antibodies (immunoglobulins), allowing only the antigens of a single disease to bind to it. Think of these antibodies as locks that only open with a uniquely-shaped key.

Now, imagine around 10 billion B-cells — each with a unique set of antibodies covering their membranes. So when a portion (epitope) of the unwelcome substance finds itself on the right B-cell’s receptors, it divides into a small army, and each cell turns into a mini-weapons factory.

Together, our B-cells produce millions of free-floating antibodies that find their way to the infected area and bind to the antigen. This doesn’t do any damage on its own, but it prevents the antigen from binding and infecting further, and acts like an ‘Come Eat Me!’ sign for hungry groups of our immune cells called phagocytes.

And after the threat gets neutralized, some of those B-cells stay in our bodies as memory cells — ready to start an immune response if it recognizes the same antigen long in the future. That’s exactly why most people only get sick with chicken-pox or measles once in their lives.

But amazing as they are, our immune systems can only do so much. Diseases like cancer find loopholes to our defenses by disguising themselves as healthy cells. Other ones like Ebola win by brute force — becoming too much for our bodies to handle at once:

How our bodies respond to outside threats — explained in five minutes. Source

It was circumstances like those which lead to a (still unanswered) problem that’s been studied for millennia:

“Can we even develop a silver bullet to all diseases, and if we could, what would it look like?”

Now, for the sake of keeping things entertaining, the journey humans have taken to answer that question isn’t something this article is going to cover in detail.

But if we condensed the findings into something that most experts could agree on, it would be these three features:

  • Specificity (Antigen-Targeted)
  • Effectiveness (Strength)
  • The Ability To Evolve.

The therapy would need to target the antigen, and the antigen alone. It would need to be insanely powerful tat eradicating it too. And it has to accomplish both of those while being able to adapt to the ever-changing tricks up the antigen’s microscopic sleeve.

If we develop a drug with those three characteristics, then it might just be able to end the war between man and microbe for good.

But that leads to another mind-boggling question: “How?”

The Process:

Enter the mimotope.

You’ve probably never heard of them before, but they’re part of a new wave of therapeutics with the potential to become a silver bullet. And despite being a new method of battling pathogens developed by top researchers, the concept’s pretty simple:

Mimotopes are substances that mimic the epitope (binding portion) of an antigen, usually for B-cells — getting them to release antibodies and remember the threat for years to come. They’re basically simplified, synthetic versions of antigens.

In biology lingo, a mimotope gets classified as a peptide — a fancy word for a small protein. If you design these mimotopes to have the same size and geometry of the antigen you’re trying to target — voila! You’ve just created lasting immunity against almost any disease you want. It’s that easy!

Cancer’s response to a mimotope-based vaccine. Source

But how does mimotope therapy stand up to the “silver bullet” test?

Well, mimotopes have the potential to be as targeted as you want them to be — and it all comes down to how you design the peptide. Good thing we have some of the best supercomputers and databases with billions of peptides to help out with that!

And when it comes to power, mimotopes are second to none. After all, they harness the most powerful attack system in nature — the human immune system. And using mimotopes helps prevent diseases before they happen — which is where things treatment get really complicated.

And here’s the icing on the cake — early research showed us that mimotopes actually give the body a degree of adaptability with diseases.

Most diseases that fly under our bodies’ radars (like cancer), get to mutate endlessly as long as our bodies don’t detect them. Once they do, our immune systems can evolve just as well, or even faster.

But what does it all mean?

The Verdict:

Well, if we can harness their power, mimotopes could help shape how we see health centuries down the line.

On top of the obvious gamechangers like curing every disease you can think of, mimotopes could help stabilize the immune system of HIV patients, fix our genome, and even target the deepest parts of our brain to blast away the toxic proteins caused by Alzheimer’s.

But when it comes to actually being a silver bullet, mimotopes alone might not cut it. Even though the field’s been around since the 1960’s, you’ll find less than 50 conclusive studies on it today. They’ve really gone unnoticed.

Not to mention, it’s still a whole lot easier for companies to develop run-of-the-mill therapeutics, and for health agencies to test them. Right now, there’s just no incentive for anyone to spend the time and money to go off those rails of traditional drug development:

Looking at how convoluted the process is already, it’s no wonder why mimotopes aren’t popular. Source

But if we find a way to get there — it could change the world as we know it.

Aside from the fact that you’d be saving hundreds of millions of lives, averting a global crisis, and paving a new path for science, finding that “silver bullet” would end a war that’s gone on for too long.

Imagine a world where you or your kids could get a vaccine when they’re two, and never have to worry about getting sick in their life.

Imagine a world where Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s didn’t have to be any more worrying than a cold.

Or a world where pandemics would go as soon as they come. Imagine a world where you health was on your side, no matter what.

Imagine a better, safer future.

Is it a future you’d want to be a part of?

Thanks for reading, and stay safe,
Aaryan.

I write about things every week(ish).

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