Antibodies, often described as magic bullets, are actually more like tanks: big, complicated and expensive. Tinier "nanobodies," derived from camels and llamas, may be able to infiltrate a wider range of diseases at lower cost. That is the hope, at least, of one small start-up in Belgium
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JEFF JOHNSON Hybrid Medical Animation

Like many biotech companies, Ablynx emerged from the confluence of a serendipitous discovery, an open window of opportunity and an unreasonable ambition. Housed on two floors in a nondescript gray laboratory on a technology campus outside the university town of Ghent, Belgium, the three-year-old company employs just 45 people, 33 of them scientists and bioengineers. It is a minimal staff with a simply stated mission: find the tiniest sliver of protein that will do the job of a full-size antibody, then turn it into a billion-dollar medicine--or better yet, into the first of a whole new class of "nanobody" drugs against cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, perhaps even Alzheimer's disease.

Despite being backed by $40 million of venture capital and partnerships with Genencor, Procter & Gamble and the National Research Council of Canada, Ablynx faces long odds. Its ambitious goal might seem altogether futile were it not for the recent surge in antibody therapies, the problems that still nag these sophisticated drugs, and the insights that Ablynx scientists have into the peculiar biology of the camel family.

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