You might wonder, why you now ended up reading a text about a lucky goat. And no the goat did not win the lottery or survived a fall from the mountain it could live on.
To explain why the goat is lucky, we must first talk about basic elements of the immune system in both goats and you. When a foreign cell, e.g. bacteria or virus, enters the body, the immune system is triggered to fight it. One part of the immune system can directly fight the cell, but another part is also activated to produce antibodies. Antibodies are used to detect the cell faster and more efficient if the cell enters the body once more. This is cool, right?
It gets even more useful. Antibodies can be used to treat diseases, e.g. by targeting only cancer cells and not healthy tissues, to test for specific foreign cells, to separate specific molecules from others, etc. They are also used to perform a laboratory test called Enzyme-Linked ImmunoSorbent Assay (ELISA), which roughly estimates the number of specific cells in a liquid solution.
But how are they custom-made in the pharmaceutical industry? Don’t worry, keep an eye on the ball and keep reading.
The regular way to produce antibodies
If they work properly, antibodies specifically target a single type of foreign cell. This key feature is used to produce customized antibodies. It is often done by injecting the molecule/cell, which the antibody should target, into a research animal.
After a little while and multiple injections (also called immunizations), antibodies are harvested from the animals’ blood. However, some of the antibodies will not target the cell efficient enough and the process is often repeated to achieve the best possible antibodies. This is because every immune system varies and reacts in a way that depends on the individual animal.
Therefore, an antibody must be evaluated by antibody characterization before it is used for disease treatment or in laboratory tests.
What about the lucky goat?
And now we get to the point about the goat that did not win the lottery or survive a mountain fall. Goats are commonly used to produce antibodies, along with rabbits and hens among others. As mentioned, each individual animal will have a unique immune response to a cell that is introduced to its blood.
This is also the case for goats. Some goats will produce antibodies that bind strongly to the target cell, whereas others will produce weaker antibodies that might recognize the wrong cell or only bind to the right one sometimes. Therefore, antibody manufacturers talk about a “lucky” goat, if it produces strong antibodies.
The problem is that the pharma company cannot know, whether the goat they use is lucky or not quite so lucky before the production is initiated by immunizations. This is clearly a giant pitfall of using research animals for antibody production.