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Humanized Antibodies And Artistic "Expressions"

by Mina Zarfsaz

Artists often explore relationships between art, science and technology. These transdiciplinary research practices generate for both artists and scientists new questions and new hypotheses about the world around us. The Science Center's current artist-in-residence, Laura Splan, is working with Integral Molecular to unfold some of the curiosities, processes and questions in this transdiciplinary exchange. This research and experience will generate transformative data that address Laura’s research and engagement in the "material manifestations of our mutable relationship with the human body" (7).

What are the direct effects that science and art have upon each other?

During Laura’s first week she was exposed to many different areas of research in the Integral lab, but one that stood out was the idea of “humanizing” an antibody. Antibodies are blood proteins produced in response to and counteracting a specific antigen. They combine chemically with substances that the body recognizes as alien, such as bacteria, viruses, and foreign substances in the blood (4).

Each antibody has a unique target known as the antigen present on the alien organism. This antigen is like a key that helps the antibody in identifying the organism. This is because both the antibody and the antigen have similar structure at the tips of their “Y” structures. Just like every lock has a single key, an antibody has a single antigen key (5). When the key is inserted into the lock, the antibody activates, allowing the two structures to bind together with precision.

source : Wikipedia

As has been the case with every new medium, from radio to video, from computer to telecommunications, the tools and processes of biotechnology opened up unprecedented possibilities for art (1).

In art, to work with biomedia is to manipulate life, and any kind of life manipulation is part of the global network known as evolution. ‘‘Life’’ can be understood in many ways, but BioArt has its own core material. BioArt emphasizes the dialogical and relational (e.g., cross- pollination, social intercourse, cell interaction, interspecies communication) as much as the material and formal qualities of art (the shape of frogs, the color of flowers, bioluminescence, the patterns on butterfly wings).

Just as the perception of the computer changed historically from an industrial device and military weapon to a communication, entertainment, and education tool, the presence of biotechnology will increasingly change from agricultural and pharmaceutical practices to play a larger role in popular culture. Terms formerly perceived as ‘‘technical,’’ such as mega-bytes and RAM, for example, have entered the vernacular. Likewise, jargon that today may seem out of place in ordinary discourse (ex. antibody, protein) will simply be incorporated into the larger verbal landscape of everyday language and subsequently art (2).

As a result, the ‘‘freedom to distort’’ that fascinated Picasso in African art has found its way into the visual lexicon of twentieth-century art, alongside the scientific-inflected biomorphism of Kandinsky and the disproportionate bodies of Hannah Hoch’s photomontages. What Horace proscribed, Magritte prescribed.

The 1935 painting L’invention collective (The Collective Invention), for example, shows a beached mermaid with the piscine half on top instead of down below, the opposite of what is usually found in fairy tales and myths. The Belgian painter’s anagrammatic or recombinant anatomy is but one sign that the twentieth century ceaselessly reimagined the limits and potentials of the human body and of biological principles (3). Works such as these helped pave the way for a more inclusive imaginary in the field of science and art in the twenty first century.

The Collective Invention

What can we learn in the comparison between the creation of art and the process of humanizing antibodies?

Antibodies tag or neutralize their targets. This binding mechanism is mediated by the ability of the antibody to communicate with other components of the immune system with a complex language and logic.

Humanized antibodies, on the other hand, are antibodies from non-human species whose protein sequences have been modified to increase their similarity to antibody variants produced naturally in humans. (8) Humanization can be necessary in development of a specific antibody in a non-human immune system (such as that in mice and rats).

Humanization process creates an “expression” that alters the protein sequence in various ways, including transcription, splicing, or translation of a protein.

Microplate reader at Integral Molecular, photo: Laura Splan

Aren't these processes similar of those an artist engages with in their practice?

Humans in general have a tendency to perceive the reactions of others as human beings. Artists not only draw upon similar biological metaphors to create artwork with transformational, and reshaping tendencies, but also create “expressions” similar to ways antibodies bind in order to de-alienate the world around us.

This binding relationship between a spectator and a work of art is the key element in understanding our interaction with the world; a world where its politics, socio-economic and cultural complexities are in need of a humanized form—art— where understanding emerges in acts of discovery and empathy, on a personal level (subjectively) and to a social extent (objectively).

The biological interactions in our bodies are also of discovery and empathy. When an antibody neutralizes an antigen (e.g. by replacing a Y protein) it empathizes with its form and structure, when tagging it similarly involves in an act of discovery. It is rather fascinating to be able to mimic these processes in the lab and engage in procedures that synthetically manipulate and analyze protein structures and models. There are so many examples of how artists have engaged with these experiments:

In BioCouture, for example, fashion, art, and biology are weaved together, blossoming new materials into existence. As author Suzanne Anker has noted, "Donna Franklin and Gary Cass have invented dresses made from cellulose generated by bacteria from red wine.”

To take another example, in Christian Bök's The Xenotext, a "chemical alphabet" is used to translate poetry into sequences of DNA for subsequent implantation into the genome of a bacterium. When translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the poetry constitutes a set of instructions, all of which cause the organism to manufacture a viable, benign protein in response (6).

Artistic practices in various ways mediate, augment, or simulate the world for us by helping us identify or generate reactions and thoughts.


1 Eduardo Kac, Signs of life : bio art and beyond, “Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics”

2 Eduardo Kac, Signs of life : bio art and beyond, “Life Transformation—Art Mutation”

3 ibid. “Art that Looks You in the Eye: Hybrids, Clones, Mutants, Synthetics, and Transgenics”

4 New Oxford American Dictionary

5 Ananya Mandal, “What is an Antibody?”

6 Sean Redmond and Darrin Sean Verhagen, “Of microbes and machines: How art and science fuse in bio-art“


8 Riechmann L, Clark M, Waldmann H, Winter G, "Reshaping human antibodies for therapy".