In the body's immune system, cells called lymphocytes secrete various types of antibodies, whose function is to attach themselves to antigens (foreign substances) that have entered the body. The immune system maintains a vast variety of antibodies, with each type able to attach itself to a matching site on the surface of a particular type of antigen (e.g., a particular species or strain of bacteria). To prepare substantial quantities of antibodies, scientists had to inject an antigen into an animal, wait for antibodies to form, draw blood from the animal, and isolate the antibodies. The antibodies obtained by this procedure were almost never pure, because typical antigens possess many recognizable surface sites, each of which leads to formation of a different type of antibody.
Kohler and Milstein saw that if a way could be found to clone lymphocytes--to cause them to subdivide indefinitely in a culture medium--then the antibody molecules secreted by the resulting population would all be identical. Lymphocytes are short-lived, however, and cannot be cultivated satisfactorily. Kohler and Milstein solved this difficulty by inducing lymphocytes to fuse with the cells of a myeloma (a type of tumour), which can be made to reproduce indefinitely. The resulting hybrid cells produced a single species of antibody while perpetuating themselves indefinitely.
The development of monoclonal antibodies revolutionized many diagnostic procedures and led to new therapeutic agents for fighting disease, since monoclonal antibodies can be designed to target specific types of cells or other antigens and can be used to carry drugs to those cells.
Kohler worked at the Basel Institute of Immunology from 1977 to 1984,
and in 1985 he was appointed one of three directors of the Max Planck
Institute of Immunobiology in Freiburg.
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