Bill Davis, professor of veterinary microbiology and pathology at Washington State University, exhibited true vision in the 1970s, when he recognized the potential for veterinary science of monoclonal antibody technology.

Antibodies are proteins produced by cells of the immune system. They help neutralize pathogens and produce immunity. Most pathogens stimulate their hosts to produce a population of diverse antibodies. Monoclonal antibodies, on the other hand, are populations of identical antibodies and are created in the laboratory. A given monoclonal antibody might be specific for an individual cell type, its state of activation, the strain of a pathogen, such as the 0157:H7 component of the infamous E. Coli 0157:H7, or any one of a number of other cellular characteristics. As a result, it’s a highly specific reagent with a wide variety of uses.

Davis learned how to make monoclonal antibodies during a sabbatical with immunologists in Australia and Germany, after which he returned to WSU. Since then he has produced more than 1,000 monoclonal antibodies that are available for research into how the immune system functions against infectious agents in food and animals, especially cattle.

Davis’s research focus has been the study of the immune response to paratuberculosis, including the development of diagnostic tools and a vaccine for the disease. A persistent disease of cattle that affects the gastrointestinal tract, paratuberculosis is a major problem in the United States and abroad. Good diagnostic tests will help, because infected animals shed the pathogen that causes the disease before they appear sick.

Davis also would like to learn how the immune system is subverted or suppressed so that the disease can progress and the bacteria persist in cattle for the animal’s lifetime.

“It’s taken 25 years to develop the monoclonal antibodies necessary to do these studies,” says Davis.

Developing a vaccine can also be a difficult undertaking. Monoclonal antibodies can be used to determine the molecular and cellular events that occur during the testing of candidate vaccines by allowing researchers to monitor the immune response to those vaccines.

Monoclonal antibodies have been used to characterize the human immune response to tuberculosis. Because the data from these studies shows that the human tuberculosis and bovine paratuberculosis diseases closely parallel each other, the cattle disease should be a good model system for the human. Information gained during the development of a vaccine against paratuberculosis should help in the development of a vaccine for human tuberculosis.

“It’s a future we’d like to see,” he says.