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Behind the picture: Campath and cake

Think that baking science-themed cakes is a modern phenomenon? Think again. Here Dr Lara Marks explains the story behind this cake baked to celebrate the opening of the Therapeutic Antibody Centre, a small facility which brought the world the first humanised monoclonal antibody drug. The centre features in a new online exhibition which tells the story of that drug, Campath. 

(Image copyright: Geoff Hale*)

(Image copyright: Geoff Hale)

This photograph, taken in 1990, shows a cake baked by research technician Jenny Phillips to commemorate the official opening of the Therapeutic Antibody Centre (TAC) in Cambridge in September of that year.

Supported by funds from the MRC, the purpose of the centre was to manufacture monoclonal antibodies (mAbs), a new type of drug which had been developed in Cambridge a couple of years earlier. There are now more than 30 mAb therapies on the market and approximately 300 mAbs are currently in clinical trials. In 1990, however, the drugs were still very much at an experimental stage, and the aim of the centre was to produce small amounts of mAbs for pilot clinical trials.

It might look like it’s demonstrating the size of computers back in the 1990s, but the cake actually depicts the fermentors which were used to grow the antibodies in rodent cells. The fermentor automatically replenished the liquid the cells were grown in and provided a steady oxygen supply and temperature. It also filtered the antibodies using a technology similar to kidney dialysis.

Standing at the fermentors are technicians, dressed in the hats and other protective clothing used to maintain the high levels of sterility needed for the production of monoclonal antibodies. These fermentors could be left more-or-less alone for six months while they churned out antibodies, reducing the manual labour needed from technicians — perhaps why Jenny chose to depict them in icing. The cake is also edged in Y-shaped depictions of antibodies themselves.

Within a short time, TAC had demonstrated how modest facilities could produce enough consistent-quality antibody for use in early-phase clinical trials. Among the drugs TAC produced was the first to be ‘humanised’ for use in people, alemtuzumab, also known as Campath and Campath-1H.

Branded today as Lemtrada, Campath started life in 1979 as a laboratory tool to explore the mechanism underlying immune tolerance. It was approved for the American and European markets in 1991 for B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, and for the European market in September 2013 for the treatment of patients with a particular type of multiple sclerosis.

But it hasn’t been a straightforward journey, and Campath’s status today is owed to its original academic creators at the University of Cambridge, and the supplies of the drug made at the TAC.

This image is one of many in my new online exhibition telling the story of Campath, from the lab books that reveal the time-consuming and fiddly process that went into its production, to the many researchers and clinicians that helped it on its way.

Lara Marks

Lara.V.Marks@kcl.ac.uk

Lara is based at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London. She has also produced ‘A Healthcare Revolution in the Making‘, an online exhibition about the life and work of César Milstein, which was sponsored by the MRC as part of our Centenary programme. Find out more about forthcoming Centenary events on our Centenary website.

 

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