Monoclonal Antibody, Anybody?

John Durant
John Durant built an ambitious cancer research and training program at UAB in the 1970s.

When Alabama governor Lurleen Wallace needed cancer treatment in the late 1960s, she had to leave the state to find appropriate care. Forty years later, patients come to UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center from around the country—and the center’s scientists have helped launch a revolutionary class of cancer drugs that is combating the disease worldwide.

With grants from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the Lurleen Wallace Courage Crusade—set up to honor the late governor—UAB’s John R. Durant, M.D., established a cancer research and training program at the university in 1970. The following year, the NCI designated the program as one of the country’s first 11 “comprehensive” cancer centers.

Basic-science research at the Cancer Center has yielded a number of important advances—especially with a class of drugs known as monoclonal antibodies. Essentially, these drugs are copies of the immune system’s frontline defenses that have been enhanced to exterminate cancer cells.

In 1987, UAB became one of the world’s first sites to treat cancer using a monoclonal antibody. Because early versions could cause rare, unwanted immune responses, UAB pioneered the production and testing of manmade molecules that were more genetically identical to human antibodies, says Albert F. LoBuglio, M.D., a renowned antibody researcher and the Cancer Center’s second director. Since then, the Cancer Center has been significantly involved with the study of nearly every monoclonal antibody approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including treatments for advanced colon cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and some types of breast cancer.

One exciting new drug under investigation is a UAB-made antibody; in clinical trials, TRA-8 has shown promise in fighting various tumors, including pancreatic cancer.