August 2000 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of the discovery of monoclonal antibodies. Köhler, G. & Milstein, C. 'Continuous cultures of fused cells secreting antibody of predefined specificity.' Nature 256, 495-497 (1975). There is a special August 2000 issue of Immunology Today celebrating this anniversary and in it César Milstein has written a perspective account entitled 'With the benefit of hindsight.' Immunol Today 21, 359-364 (2000).
The first monoclonal antibody to be made was antibody Sp1, a mouse IgM antibody specific for SRBC. The fusion experiment was carried out and the cell line cloned in late 1974, Kohler and Milstein submitted their paper to Nature in May 1975 and it was accepted for publication in June 1975, finally appearing in print in August 1975. Sp1 is still going strong, we obtained a clone of this line from César, last year, for a student project we were running in the Department of Pathology. The cells came up from being frozen in liquid nitrogen in good condition and secreted plenty of anti-SRBC antibody into the culture supernatant.
When Köhler and Milstein, working at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, first discovered a method for making monoclonal antibodies, they did not for various reasons patent their discovery. Those like myself who remember the public debate which followed in the late 1970s and early 1980s will know that much criticism was aimed at this decision. In his Immunology Today article and also in a speech which César made recently in London (at an MRC conference celebrating 25 years of monoclonal antibodies), he explains his viewpoint on these decisions not to file patents. In this article and speech César refers to various pieces of correspondence he entered into with the Medical Research Council and the National Research and Development Corporation. There is one letter he quotes in which the UK government scientist at NRDC charged with reviewing his manuscript states....
'It is certainly difficult for us to identify any immediate practical applications which could be pursued as a commercial venture, even assuming that publication had not already occurred.'
This controversy was discussed many times in the press and at meetings and copies of the letters have from time to time been displayed. With '25 years of hindsight' and now that the WWW is such a excellent way to communicate ideas I have decided to make public a copy of the letter which I obtained as a PhD student in César's laboratory (1978-1981). The discussions and debates had a great influence on my own academic thinking. Realising that these points might be of future interest I made copies of some of the letters and articles which César used to pin up on the laboratory notice board for us all to read at the time.
To see a full sized copy of the NRDC letter click on this image below.
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