In 1989, a group of biologists led by Raymond Hamers at the VUB investigated an odd observation handed in as part of a student’s project on parasite immunodefense in dromedaries and camels. One of the tests for antibodies in dromedary blood seemed to show an error: in addition to normal four-chain antibodies it indicated the presence of simpler antibodies composed solely of a pair of heavy chains. In dromedaries, and in two-humped Asian camels and South American llamas, about half the antibodies circulating in the blood lack a light chain. Equally surprising, the researchers found that these ‘incomplete’ antibodies are able to grasp their targets as firmly as normal antibodies do. Genetic engineering techniques were developed to retrieve the target-binding single domain fragments (referred to as Nanobodies®) from the heavy chain-only camelid antibodies. These have affinities for their targets virtually equal to a full classical antibody 10 times their size.
Based on this initial technology, Ablynx NV, a biopharmaceutical company engaged in the discovery and development of Nanobodies®, was established as a spin-off of VIB and VUB in 2001. The company has developed a portfolio of Nanobody®-based therapeutic programmes in a number of major disease areas, including inflammation, thrombosis, oncology and Alzheimer’s disease.
In 2018 Sanofi acquired Ablynx for €3,9 billion.