The immune systems of humans and animals contain a large number of antibodies. In humans, that number is very large — more than 15 billion — but all of them fit comfortably into a small vial.

Antibodies are the defence mechanism against disease. When you have a cold for five days, the antibodies fight the virus, adapting and mutating to meet and destroy that particular strain.

But antibodies can also be designed, created and modified in the laboratory and their use in research and drug development is big business.

AbD Serotec, based at Kidlington, is part of German multinational group MorphoSys. Serotec markets and sells antibodies to academia and industry for research and diagnostics.

MorphoSys makes synthetic antibodies in vitro — in the laboratory — and supplies these mainly to pharmaceutical companies as drug candidates.

The research and diagnostics division represents 25 per cent of MorphoSys business. The remaining 75 per cent comes from developing therapeutic drugs.

Divisional head Dieter Lingelbach and Serotec managing director Dr Andrew Lane guided me through the history of antibodies and their current market.

The presence of antibodies and their significance were first discovered around 40 years ago. Scientists initially developed antibodies to use in blood tests for diseases like leukaemia, first measuring tumour cells before, then after, treatment such as chemotherapy.

Now antibodies are used for research into all kinds of human and animal complaints.

In those early days, antibodies were raised in animals, usually mice. This had several disadvantages. The mouse antibodies had to be humanised for therapeutic use, a costly process. The whole procedure took six to nine months. Last – and certainly not least – scientists did not want to use animals.

Serotec was founded 26 years ago by an Oxford entrepreneur Ed Bernard. Right from the early days, the company wanted to avoid using animals and was one of the first to develop animal-free methods of production.

Its Kidlington headquarters now boasts an ISO 9001-certified production facility and supports sales offices in North Carolina and Düsseldorf, plus a network of distributors.

The range encompasses more than 10,000 antibodies and reagents, both human and veterinary. Custom-made antibodies from the MorphoSys library in Germany are also sold through Serotec.

For Serotec, AbD stands for Antibodies Direct. Orders are often via the Internet, a useful facility for customers, who can browse the extensive catalogue online.

Most orders are fulfilled off the shelf, shipped next day and can be supplied in bulk. ‘In bulk’ for antibodies means grams, rather than minute fractions of a gram. Most US orders are dealt with by the office in Raleigh, North Carolina, and continental Europe is served through Düsseldorf.

In Munich, MorphoSys offers its own AbD — Antibodies by Design — a service established in 2003. Customers who want a particular antibody supply MorphoSys with the relevant antigen, a protein found in the body that stimulates the production of an antibody.

MorphoSys then test this antigen against their extensive library of antibodies to obtain a reaction, known as a ‘hit’. Usually, there will be somewhere between one and ten such hits. The best ones are shipped to the customer for research, use in diagnosis, or treatment of disease.

The testing process is robotised. Once programmed, the robot will conduct hundreds or thousands of such tests without further intervention.

So far, the company has produced more than 4,000 custom antibodies, which can then be further modified by the customer.

Because the process is automated, it takes between four and eight weeks and costs between $5000 and $10,000 (£3,260-£6,516) per antibody. Buyers from academia are usually happy for the antibody to be placed on general sale, once they have had chance to work on it for a little while: industry wants exclusivity.

As a result, academics normally pay a discounted price, their pharmaceutical counterparts pay list price.

The major portion of MorphoSys’ turnover is from developing therapeutic drugs for big pharmaceutical companies and they have a long-standing and ongoing relationship with Novartis. Also, the company is developing two of its own drugs and is planning to expand this part of its operations.

In 2005, MorphoSys acquired antibody company Biogenesis, adding Oxford Biotechnology and Serotec to its portfolio in 2006. Now all the products appear under the Serotec brand.

Mr Lingelbach said: “We bought Serotec for its marketing and sales capabilities, too. Most antibody companies just use the Internet and possibly a catalogue for their sales. We are the only company in this field to have a sales force of about 40 people and that’s a very powerful advantage.”

As a multinational, the company language is English, but MorphoSys has great cultural awareness. Understanding that direct translations from German to English can result in words and phrases that sound harsh and even offensive to native speakers, they run self-help groups to learn the correct phraseology.

Dr Lane added: “This is a global business operating across many time zones. Our technical support for customers is vital and we’re presently examining ways to cover enquiries from countries that are many hours ahead or behind GMT.”