Building A Better Protein Trap

Scott Soderling

Life scientists love antibodies, not only because these little proteins help protect us all from pathogens, but because antibodies are also a very handy laboratory tool for identifying and marking proteins of interest in their research.

When you’re trying to find something very tiny, you need an itty bitty flag to mark it. That’s an antibody.

Like most life science researchers, Duke cell biology chair Scott Soderling has been reliant on custom antibodies, molecules made-to-order by hundreds of different supply labs that help scientists find and mark specific proteins in cell cultures and living organisms.

“But there's a problem,” he explains in the small conference room adjacent to his Nanaline Duke office. “Fifty percent of the antibodies on the market are junk. They're not specific. They might bind what you think they bind, but then they bind to other things you don't know about, or they don't even bind what you want to bind to at all.”

Worse than that, one batch of bespoke antibodies may not be the same as the last one. “Say you have a perfect antibody that binds exactly what you want and nothing else. And then you order the next lot and there’s a different preparation from a different animal, and you're back to square one. It doesn't work.”

“It’s thought that these bad antibodies lead to a large fraction of the irreproducible results,” Soderling says. “So it costs money, it costs time and it costs credibility. This is a huge problem for science, both academic and industry.” In part, the problem stems from the fact that custom antibody manufacturing techniques date to the 1970s, he says.

Soderling has founded a Duke spinout company he hopes will solve the reliability problem. CasTag BioSciences is based on a technology developed in his lab that marks proteins of interest in an entirely new way, using the genome-editing tool CRISPR.

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