The Tantalizing Prospect of Artificial Antibodies

Linus Pauling and Dan Campbell, 1943.

[Part 2 of 3]

By late 1939, Linus Pauling had thrown himself wholeheartedly into the study of antibodies, specifically how they work and how they are made. He’d already developed a few memorable and unique hypotheses, though by 1940 they were still yet to be proven correct or otherwise.

In January 1940, a researcher named Dan Campbell arrived at Caltech with the intent of working on problems in immunochemistry. He and Pauling began collaborating, and ended up co-authoring several papers together. Later in 1940, after a first, erroneous paper, Pauling published another in which he claimed:

all antibody molecules contain the same polypeptide chains as normal globulin, and differ from normal globulin only in the configuration of the chain; that is, in the way that the chain is coiled in the molecule.

In other words, shape was what determined the effect of antibodies. Pauling acknowledged the potential for flaws lying within his hypothesis, but adopted it because of his inability to otherwise “formulate a reasonable mechanism whereby the order of amino-acids residues would be determined by the antigen.”

Nobody knew about the genetic basis of amino acids at the time. As a result, while Pauling’s hypothesis on how antibodies worked eventually turned out to be correct, his coupled hypothesis on how they were formed was still wrong. Regardless, Pauling’s theory “ruled the roost amongst immunochemists” for almost 20 years. It wasn’t even until 1949 that people began to seriously question Pauling’s model, and when that finally happened, it was because the model failed to account for the development of immunity to antibodies.

In July a colleague at Caltech, Max Delbrück – a German researcher who had arrived in the US on a study abroad trip and never went home – showed Pauling a paper written by Pascual Jordan, another German scientist. Jordan claimed that identical molecules were attracted to each other, and opposite molecules repelled from one another, because of quantum mechanical resonance. Pauling declared the idea “baloney,” and decided to write a paper debunking Jordan’s theory. He asked Delbrück to co-author it, which he did with hesitation, as the young scientist was nervous about signing his name to a paper attacking the theories of the famous and well-respected Jordan. The duo finished the paper and published it in Science, but unfortunately for them, the work went largely unnoticed.

Since the start of the Battle of Britain in 1940, Pauling had been doing some side research on explosives, propellants, and other “war work” in anticipation of United States involvement in the war raging across Europe and the Asia. In 1941, U.S. engagement finally came about with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Pauling and his laboratory at Caltech switched their main priority to war work, as did just about every other research laboratory in the country. As part of this realignment of efforts, Pauling received a grant to begin a research project with the goal of creating gelatin-based blood plasma artificial antibodies, to be used for military medical purposes.

Pauling hypothesized that if a generic protein, such as beef globulin, was very carefully denatured, then placed in the presence of an antigen and revitalized, it would grow and mold itself to the antigen. If this worked, medical technicians would someday be able to create antibodies “made to order.” The potential import of the idea was clear: “the end result of a million years of evolution” would become available “by the quart.” Successful implementation would represent a massive breakthrough in medical technology, and Pauling was convinced that he was just the man to do it. He picked Dan Campbell and David Pressman to be his primary assistants and the group got to work.

The process was slow and complicated; it involved a mixture of 1-2% beef globulin, dissolved in 0.9% sodium chloride, then very slowly heated to 57˚F. Once at that temperature, alkali would be carefully added to bring the mixture to a pH of 11, before very delicately and slowly returning the mixture to pH 0. To further complicate issues, the process produced a large amount of nitrogen, which had to be removed, but the process of removing the nitrogen created carbon monoxide and other “undesirable substances.” The Pauling group tested their antibodies on rabbits, mice, and guinea pigs predominantly, as their labs lacked the space for more extensive animal research.

In March 1942, instead of submitting his ideas to a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, Pauling issued a press release to Science News, claiming that his lab had developed artificial antibodies.

Text of Pauling's artificial antibodies press release, March 1942.

Text of Pauling’s artificial antibodies press release, March 1942.

The scientific community was vexed by this highly unusual action. Numerous scientists questioned the strength of the data, saying that the reports released by Pauling and Campbell were vague and weak. Pauling asserted that while the data they had gathered was not definitive, it was strong enough to make the statement that artificial antibodies had been produced. Pauling said that his artificial antibodies, though weak, were still real, and that he was going to continue improving on them. Specifically, he claimed that the antibodies had been used to prevent mice from getting pneumonia.

Pauling’s reputation helped to coax certain colleagues in the direction of his arguments. And after some skillful debating, the Rockefeller Foundation offered $31,000 to continue the research, while the federal Office of Science Research and Development offered $20,000.

Despite the skepticism of his peers, Pauling was enthusiastic and eager to continue research on this line of work. He had the funding and the desire, and he was convinced it was only a matter of time before he could start mass-producing artificial antibodies. However, he was about to run into some issues outside of his laboratories.