21. January 2020 | Press releases:

Scientists show we don´t need horses to treat diphtheria Research Funded by PETA Science Group Breaks New Ground With Recombinant Human Antibodies

A project taking the first steps towards replacing the only treatment for diphtheria has succeeded. Funded by the PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. and carried out at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biotechnology, and Bioinformatics at the Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany, the project created fully human-derived antibodies capable of neutralising the diphtheria toxin. The UK National Institute for Biological Standards and Control also formed part of the project team. The results were recently published in Scientific Reports (a Nature research journal) and covered in an article by Science.

Diphtheria is a potentially deadly infectious disease that is a significant human health burden in regions where vaccine coverage is limited, and therapeutic intervention relies on the use of a diphtheria antitoxin (DAT) produced in horses. This therapy has been in use for more than 100 years and is produced by repeated immunisation of horses with diphtheria vaccine and toxin, followed by purification of toxin-neutralising antibodies from horses’ blood. As an animal-blood product, equine DAT has the potential to cause serious allergic reactions in patients who receive it, and global health authorities report having significant difficulty acquiring a sufficient quantity of equine antitoxins to respond quickly to outbreaks of diphtheria.

In addition, there are significant ethical concerns around the use of animals for the production of human therapeutics, and inspections of facilities where horses are used to produce DAT have found widespread neglect of animal welfare regulations. Use of human antibodies produced using recombinant technology avoids these drawbacks.

Using antibody phage display, an in vitro selection system that does not require the immunisation of animals, this project generated human recombinant antibodies that neutralise the diphtheria toxin. Combinations of the most effective toxin-neutralising antibodies are sufficiently potent to be candidates for further clinical development to replace equine DAT.

Project partners

Institut für Biochemie, Biotechnologie und Bioinformatik

The Institute of Biochemistry, Biotechnology, and Bioinformatics at the Technische Universität Braunschweig is led by Stefan Dübel, an inventor of the antibody phage display method of generating antibodies without the use of animals. The institute’s current research focuses on novel applications of recombinant antibodies in treating infectious diseases and cancer. Its research has led to four spin-off companies, including YUMAB GmbH and Abcalis GmbH, which provide recombinant human antibodies for various applications in therapy, diagnostics, and research.

PETA International Science Consortium

The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. works to accelerate the development, validation, and global implementation of animal-free testing. It was established in 2012 to coordinate the scientific and regulatory expertise of its members – PETA US, PETA UK, PETA Germany, PETA India, PETA Netherlands, PETA France, PETA Asia, and PETA Australia. The Science Consortium and its members have donated millions of pounds towards helping to reduce and replace animal use.

National Institute for Biological Standards and Control

The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control plays a leading national and international role in assuring the quality of biological medicines and diagnostics.