The Difference Between Vaccines and Antibody Therapeutics

Vaccines are considered to be among the greatest medical advances in the past several centuries. They have effectively eliminated some of the most deadly diseases ever to scourge humanity. Study of the immune system has led to the development of antibody drugs, allowing medical researchers to harness the mechanisms that make vaccines so powerful in a specific, targeted manner. In this way, the new class of drugs can take advantage of your body’s own ability to target and fight threats.


This picture from the Well Come Collection ( is titled “Treatment of Infantile Paralysis” and depicts the results of Poliovirus. Fortunately, vaccines have virtually removed Poliovirus from our lives.

Vaccines work by utilizing your body’s immune system, which has the innate ability to respond to new threats. This is accomplished by introducing inactivated components of a disease to the body, giving it the chance to learn how to combat the disease without risk of infection. When the real thing shows up, the immune system already has an antibody response prepared! Thanks to vaccines, some once-common diseases have been virtually eliminated. Polio is a crippling and sometimes deadly infectious disease that primarily occurs in children between six months and four years of age. Infection may lead to permanent paralysis, or worse. The early 1950s saw many Poliovirus outbreaks throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States with more than 25,000 cases reported annually. This spurred the creation of the first effective polio vaccine in 1952. New incidences dropped sharply over the following decades, and by 1994, vaccines had rendered the Americas effectively free of polio. Many other once-deadly diseases have been mostly eliminated in this way, including the measles, rubella, mumps, and smallpox.

Vaccines vs. Antibody Biotherapeutics

We have explained how antibody drugs work in previous blog posts. While they often take advantage of the abilities of your immune system, one of the biggest threats to their effectiveness is, ironically, the immune system itself. Any protein-based drug has a risk of being perceived as “foreign” which will trigger an immune response to itself instead of to its target. This presents a serious hurdle with development. The beauty of vaccines is that — unlike antibody drugs — they actively exploit your body’s immune response by giving it foreign material to “fight” which looks enough like a real infection that your body learns what its enemy looks like without ever facing a real threat. In a sense, vaccines train your body to design and produce its own highly-specific antibody drugs against any new threat — without all the R&D!

Preparation of rabies vaccine from The Pasteur Institute, Kasauli, India. Photograph, ca. 1910.


Antibody drugs are powerful tools of modern medicine, capable of specifically binding and disabling all sorts of targets, but they are complicated and expensive to develop. Vaccines let your body do the hard work and develop specialized antibodies to fight infections for itself. In a sense, all the research done to create antibody drugs is just trying to replicate in a lab what the human body does on its own!

Links and Citations:
All pictures for this blog were provided by the Wellcome Collection:

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