If Antibodies Were Sports Cars

This is the second in a series of blog posts that describe how Lilly employees discover and develop innovative treatments for patients. We're also highlighting many of the passionate scientists and clinicians behind the cutting-edge discoveries.

If antibodies were sports cars, ours would be a racing model.

High performance. Custom-fit. Innovative design.

And Lilly’s antibody engineers would be celebrating in the winner’s circle, guzzling the traditional carton of milk, after their high-tech discoveries have zoomed across the finish line.

Antibody Graphic - for blog post

Well, at least racing enthusiasts can dream.

In reality, our protein engineers are designing high-tech antibodies with very specific characteristics. We hope that one day they will become powerful medicines to treat certain cancers and autoimmune diseases. There’s just no celebratory milk drinking or winner’s circle — more like the culmination of years working in the lab in collaboration with many other chemists and biologists across the company to solve incredibly complex scientific problems.

At this point, you may be asking, “What is an antibody?” Antibodies are large, Y-shaped blood proteins created in the body by the immune system. An antibody’s therapeutic power is measured by two core features – its specificity and affinity – and can often times be challenging to engineer. Specificity means an antibody binds specifically to only one type of cell or molecule, a quality that’s made them extremely attractive to drug development companies. An antibody’s affinity is the strength with which it binds to its target. Protein engineering allows scientists to target a specific reaction in specific cells.*

Uncropped Ying Tang ixe scientistAt Lilly’s San Diego-based R&D center, research fellow Ying Tang, Ph.D., explains, “Our expertise here is using our advanced protein-engineering technology to generate the best molecules that can work in humans. Antibodies discovered in animals or those circulating in our bodies are not made for therapeutics. We need to make it possible for these antibodies to not only have a therapeutic effect but also be reliably manufactured, distributed and stored.”

Sounds as simple as an oil change, right?

The reality is that protein — and antibody — engineering is incredibly complex. It often represents a critical link between our scientists’ pre-clinical lab work and the beginning of our Phase I research as a potential medicine in humans.

Given the complexity of the science and the time it takes to develop just the right customized antibody, relatively few scientists reach the black-and-white checkered flag and see their discoveries arrive at the regulatory-approval finish line. 

“Seeing one of our discoveries reach the market is the fulfillment of my career,” says Dr. Tang. “We worked for years, and we worked very hard to see if this molecule could help people. Did we help treat a disease? Yes. That’s when we know that we did something good with our lives.”


*Georgiou, G., & Maynard, J., (August 2000). Antibody Engineering.  Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering, 2, 339 -376. doi: 10.1146/annurev.bioeng.2.1.339