NANOBODY® Technology Platform

These tiny, modular antibodies are ushering in a new era in therapeutics at Sanofi. Here we explain how they work and why they are generating so much excitement.

The serendipitous discovery in 1989 of a special kind of antibody in llamas and other camelid species sparked decades of innovation and led to the creation of a revolutionary type of medicine by biotech company Ablynx, now part of Sanofi. This new NANOBODY® technology1 is enabling researchers to create new therapeutics for a broad range of diseases and refine existing treatments.

What are NANOBODY® molecules?

Antibodies are composed of chains of amino acids (peptides): one type of chain is called "heavy" and the other "light" (see image). Human antibodies have both types, but llamas, alpacas, and other species can generate antibodies that only have "heavy-chain" peptides.

nanobody antibody fragment

Caption: Human antibodies have both heavy and light chains of peptides (1) while camelids can also generate heavy-chain-only antibodies (2). NANOBODY® molecules are based on a fragment of one domain of a heavy-chain antibody

Sanofi's Nanobody molecules are derived from these "heavy-chain-only" peptides and are around a tenth the size of conventional antibodies.2,3

Most antibodies can bind to just one target. But by connecting antibody fragments, like beads on a string, Sanofi scientists can create new, "multivalent" Nanobody compounds that bind to many different targets at once.4 For example, a single Nanobody compound might attach to several sites on a tumor and a tumor-attacking immune cell, thereby helping the body's immune system fight cancer.

Antibody fragments strung together

Caption: The basic building block of a Nanobody molecule is a fragment from one domain of a heavy-chain antibody (left). Fragments from different heavy-chain antibodies can be strung together (right) 

Nanobody antibody attaching to a tumor and immune cell

Caption: Each building block of the Nanobody therapeutic can bind tightly to a specific protein, for example on the surface of a tumor (right) or immune cell (left)

Why does it matter?

Nanobody molecules have become an essential tool in drug discovery. They present the possibility of replacing complex treatment regimens with single, multi-action medicines, and open the door to developing new therapeutics. By combining Nanobody engineering with other cutting-edge technologies and large-scale manufacturing capacity, Sanofi is developing medicines that could offer new solutions for patients.

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Intellectual Property

Sanofi has a patent portfolio of more than 500 pending and granted patents spanning discovery, generation, optimization, formatting, manufacture, administration, formulation and clinical use of Nanobody® molecules, as well as covering its clinical development programs and product candidates. Ablynx, a Sanofi company, is the holder worldwide of the NANOBODY® trademark.

Find out more

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Sanofi Technology Platforms

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NANOBODY is a registered trademark of Ablynx N.V.

  1. Mitch Leslie (2018) Mini-antibodies discovered in sharks and camels could lead to drugs for cancer and other diseases. Science Magazine; doi: doi:10.1126/science.aau1288
  2. Ivana Jovčevska & Serge Muyldermans (2020) The Therapeutic Potential of Nanobodies. BioDrugs 34:11–26. 
  3. Jessica R. Ingram, Florian I. Schmidt, and Hidde L. Ploegh (2018) Exploiting Nanobodies’ Singular Traits. Annual Review of Immunology 36:695–715. See also Hamers-Casterman C, et al. (1993) Naturally Occurring Antibodies Devoid of Light Chains. Nature 363:446-8; doi: 10.1038/363446a0
  4. Ivana Jovčevska & Serge Muyldermans (2020) The Therapeutic Potential of Nanobodies. BioDrugs 34:11–26.