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New approaches to tackling human disease may come from a surprising source — camels — according to research which shows that camels have unique immune systems.

Camel antibodies — proteins that bind to invading organisms as part of the body’s natural defence against disease — are unlike those of other mammals and are particularly suitable for use as vaccines and treatments for human disease, say two researchers from the United Arab Emirates’ Zayed Complex for Herbal Research and Traditional Medicine.

The advantages of camel antibodies are threefold, suggest Sabah Jassim and Mazen Ali Naji. They are smaller than human antibodies and can therefore reach tissues and cells not normally accessible; they have fewer components, making them easier to manufacture; and they interact with active disease molecules in a way that not only marks them for destruction, but also renders them completely inactive.

“The comparative simplicity, high affinity and specificity, and the potential to reach and interact with active sites, suggests that camel heavy chain antibodies present advantages over common antibodies in the design, production and application of clinically valuable compounds,” Jassim and Naji write in the December 2001 issue of Biologist.

Indeed, they report that Belgian researchers have already managed to create ‘camelised’ human antibodies that provide a “small, robust and efficient recognition unit” and could be an “ideal scaffold” for vaccine development from camel antibodies.

Camel antibodies “will find their way from the desert sands into a laboratory test tube!” the authors say. They add that “it is up to us and to future generations to ensure that this wonderful animal retains a special place in the heart of tomorrow’s world”.

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