UI home to antibody collection valued at $250 million, priceless in application
Thursday, October 13, 2016

Just around the corner from University of Iowa biology professor David Soll’s office is an exclusive reservoir of biological agents used by researchers worldwide seeking to cure cancer. Its mission is deeply personal for Soll.

The Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank at the UI was created by the National Institutes of Health in 1986 to store and distribute laboratory-produced proteins used for cancer research and other scientific pursuits. Soll has run the bank for the past 20 years as an independent nonprofit entity, creating, storing, and distributing these proteins, called monoclonal antibodies, to researchers at a fraction of the commercial cost.

“We’re sitting on a $250 million collection that’s nowhere else,” says Soll, who came to the UI in 1972. “We’re the largest non-commercial hybridoma bank in the world. And we’re the only national resource, of hundreds created by the NIH, that hasn’t taken a cent of institutional money.”

The bank houses more than 4,000 hybridomas. A hybridoma is formed when a B cell (which makes an antibody) is paired with a cancer cell. The hybridomas secrete monoclonal antibodies, and it’s these uniquely created agents that have galvanized the field of cancer research.

“I know a potent anti-tumor antibody is out there,” Soll says. “If I find it, then I can look up to heaven and tell her I did something.”

Here’s why: Antibodies can attach themselves to certain antigens (or proteins) on cells, including cancer cells, and stop them from growing or making tumors. If researchers can create an antibody that targets a single antigen, such as one linked to a particular cancer cell, then that antibody can be mass produced.

“Monoclonal antibodies are the ultimate cancer fighters,” Soll says. “They now represent approximately a quarter of all current cancer drugs and the majority under development.”

But cancer cells are devious and adaptable, capable of avoiding detection or reproducing so rapidly that the body’s natural defenses can’t keep up. In the past two decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved about 35 monoclonal antibodies to treat certain cancers. However, most of the monoclonal antibodies so far identified haven’t worked well, which is why there’s still a concerted effort to discover new ones.

A personal crusade

Soll’s mission to identify improved cancer-fighting monoclonal antibodies is personal: His wife died from brain cancer six years ago. He didn’t leave her bedside for four months.

After her death, Soll switched his research focus to cancer and is working to create a monoclonal antibody that would stop cancer tumors from forming, no matter the type. The bank, with its supply of monoclonal antibodies, coupled with his lab’s novel 3-D imaging that tracks tumor formation and growth in real time, is “a serendipitous marriage of technologies” for his work, Soll says.

“I know a potent anti-tumor antibody is out there,” Soll says. “If I find it, then I can look up to heaven and tell her I did something.”

Basic research

The monoclonal antibodies also are used for a host of other basic applications in biology, such as identifying and studying proteins in human diseases.

“They’re used for everything. They’re universal,” Soll says. “They’ll never become out of date.”

The bank has some 60,000 active clients worldwide, and it sets the UI apart from other research institutions.

“The Developmental Studies Hybridoma Bank is one of the many ‘hidden’ treasures at the University of Iowa that are in plain sight, a national resource for one of the most important, exciting, and promising areas of research right now,” says Dan Reed, UI vice president for research and economic development.

The client list includes many UI scientists. One of them, Kevin Campbell, professor and head of the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, has worked with the bank since its inception. Campbell uses the hybridomas to identify the proteins present—or absentin various forms of muscular dystrophy.

“It’s like a natural resource,” says Campbell, who has stored at least 10 ten of his lab’s monoclonal antibodies at the bank. “Most scientists know about the hybridoma bank and know it’s located at the University of Iowa.”

Soll employs 16 scientists and staff who collect, produce, test, and distribute hybridomas worldwide.

The bank isn’t just a boon to medical researchers, either. Soll also has used its revenue to fund four graduate fellowships in the biology department and new fellowships each year for professors within the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for non-scientific research. 

“We must realize an important role of professors in the humanities is to teach our science students to read, write, and think, and thus we must help support them,” Soll says.