Image credit: Tiede et al. (2017)

A better alternative

The Affimer protein has the potential to be used in research and medicine as a replacement to antibodies.

Many of the molecules that are essential for life are too small to be visible inside cells. So, scientists use large complex proteins called antibodies that bind to these molecules to detect whether they are present and show where they are in a cell. As well as being useful tools in experiments, these antibodies can be used to help identify and treat diseases.

The body produces antibodies in response to an infection. The antibodies used in experiments are purified from animal blood, but this method of producing antibodies has flaws. For example, it can be difficult to make identical batches of antibody that always behave in the same way. So scientists have developed “alternative binding proteins” that can be made in the laboratory. These proteins are much less complicated and can be developed more quickly than antibodies, and can easily be adapted for a variety of uses.

An alternative binding protein called an Affimer behaves in a similar way to an antibody by binding tightly to its target molecule, but is much more stable to acidity and high temperature. Christian Tiede and colleagues have now tested how well the Affimer works in a wide range of different experiments that normally use antibodies to analyse the amount of a particular molecule inside a cell.

The results of the tests show that the Affimer behaves in the same way as antibodies, and sometimes works more effectively. Tiede and colleagues show that an Affimer can help to reveal how a particular molecule works within a cell, to create detailed pictures of molecules in cells and tissues, and to identify a tumour. It can also be used alongside a new technique called ‘super-resolution microscopy’ that allows researchers to watch the activity of individual molecules.

Future challenges are to test the Affimer in even more applications and to encourage its wider use by researchers, alongside other alternative binding proteins, as as replacements for some antibodies. This could ultimately lead to the development of faster and more efficient diagnostic, imaging and therapeutic tests.

To find out more

Read the eLife research paper on which this eLife digest is based: “Affimer proteins are versatile and renewable affinity reagents” (June 27, 2017).
eLife is an open-access journal that publishes outstanding research in the life sciences and biomedicine.
This text was reused under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.