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Researchers now know how amped-up antibodies work in pregnant women. That could be a game-changer

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Cincinnati Children's Hospital researchers discovered the specific sugar that changes during pregnancy. "This change is the light switch that allows maternal antibodies to protect babies against infection inside cells," Dr. Sing Sing Way says.

Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center now have a better understanding of how a pregnant woman's body protects a baby from infection. Scientists now hope to use that information to “mimic these amped-up antibodies” to produce new drugs and improve vaccines.

The discoveries are published in the June 8 edition of the journal Nature.

Lead author John Erickson, MD, Ph.d., says it involves the body’s ability to change the structure of certain sugars attached to antibodies. “It’s really small changes," he says. "It really comes down to only being about six atoms that are removed from the antibody during pregnancy that allows it to become a very protective antibody in the baby.”

Scientists used to think antibodies couldn’t get inside cells, but with the changes during pregnancy, it shows they can.

Way and Erickson.jpg
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
(from left) Senior Author Sing Sing Way, MD PhD and First Author John Erickson, MD, PhD

“One of the highlights of this work is that we should consider vaccinating more reproductive age women," says senior author Sing Sing Way. "And we should design vaccines that target the bugs that cause infections during pregnancy in the early newborn period to best immunize or boost protection against infection when people are the most vulnerable.”

The study also shows the molecular switch continues in nursing mothers to allow this enhanced protection to babies through breastmilk.

These revved-up antibodies can be produced in the lab

The team was able to successfully restore lost immune protection in the lab using healthy pregnant mice that were gene-edited.

According to the Children’s news release, “Hundreds of monoclonal antibodies have been produced as potential treatments for various disorders including cancer, asthma, multiple sclerosis, as well as hard-to-shake viral and bacterial infections — including new treatments rapidly developed for COVID-19. Some are already FDA approved; many more are in clinical trials and some have failed to show strong results.”

The discovery in pregnant women could potentially lead to improved treatments for infections caused by other pathogens like HIV and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which poses a serious risk to infants.

Ann Thompson has years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market and brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology