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Antiserum (plural antisera) is human or nonhuman blood serum containing polyclonal antibodies that is used to spread passive immunity to many diseases. For example, convalescent serum, passive antibody transfusion from a previous human survivor, used to be the only known effective treatment for Ebola infection but with a poor success rate.[1]

Antisera are widely used in diagnostic virology laboratories. The most common use of antiserum in humans is as antitoxin or antivenom to treat envenomation.

Serum therapy, also known as serotherapy, describes the treatment of an infectious disease using the serum of animals that have been immunized against the specific organisms or their product, to which the disease is supposedly referable.


The first therapies for the treatment of diphtheria and tetanus occurred in the mid-1890s and had a major impact on the development in the history of medicine.

Emil Behring (1854-1917) pioneered the technique and started animal testing with guinea pigs.[2]

Based on his research, that clients infected by Corynebacterium diphtheriae and survived never became infected again. He discovered that the body produces an antitoxin which prevents survivors of infections from being infected again with the same agent.

It was necessary to immunize larger animals to produce enough serum to protect humans because the amount of antiserum produced by guinea pigs was not sufficient.

Horses proved to be the best serum producer because the serum of other large animals is not concentrated enough and horses have no diseases that can be transferred to humans.

Due to the First World War, a large number of horses were needed for military purposes. It was difficult for Emil Behring to find enough horses for his serum production. He bought horses from the neighbouring eastern countries, mostly Hungary and Poland. Because of limited financial resources, most horses that were selected were intended to be slaughtered, as the physical appearance of the animal did not have any influence on the production of serum. Serum horses were calm, well-mannered, and in good health. Age, breed, height, and color were irrelevant.[3]

Horses were transported from Poland or Hungary to the Behring Facilities in Marburg in the west-central part of Germany. Most of the horses were transported by rail and treated like any other freight load. During the interminable border crossing, horses were left standing in extreme heat or cold.[4]

Once the horses arrived in Marburg, they had three to four weeks to recover in a quarantine facility where data of the horses was recorded. The horses had to be in perfect condition for the immunization, and the quarantine facility ensured that the horses were free of any disease or bacteria which could infect the other horses. In the Behring Facilities, the horses were highly respected and viewed as life savers; therefore; they were well treated. A few of the individual horses used for serum production were celebrated for their service to humankind.

In 1891 Emil Behring saved the life of a young girl with diphtheria by injecting antiserum for the first time in history.

At the end of the 19th century, every second child in Germany was infected with diphtheria, which was the most frequent cause of death in children up to 15 years.

Therefore, serum horses were primary saviors of diphtheria infected people. Subsequently, treatment of tetanus, rabies, and snake venom developed. The proactive protective vaccination against diphtheria and other diseases began.

In 1901 Behring won the first Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in the study of diphtheria.

How it works[edit]


Antibodies in the antiserum bind the infectious agent or antigen.[5] The immune system then recognizes foreign agents bound to antibodies and triggers a more robust immune response. The use of antiserum is particularly effective against pathogens which are capable of evading the immune system in their unstimulated state but are not robust enough to evade the stimulated immune system. The existence of antibodies to the agent depends on an initial survivor whose immune system, by chance, discovered a counteragent to the pathogen or a host species which carries the pathogen but does not suffer from its effects.[6] Further stocks of antiserum can then be produced from the initial donor or from a donor organism that is inoculated with the pathogen and cured by some stock of preexisting antiserum. Diluted snake venom is often used as an antiserum to give a passive immunity to snake venom itself.[7][8]

Horses that were infected by a pathogen were vaccinated thrice in increasing sizes of the dose. The time between each vaccination varied from each horse and its health condition. Normally the horses needed a few weeks to produce the serum in the blood after the last vaccination. Even though they tried to empower the immune system of the horses during this immunization with painstaking care, most of the horses suffered appetite loss, fever, and in worse cases shock and dyspnea.

The highest immunization risk for horses was the production of antiserum for snake venom.

The horse was immunized with all types of snake poison at the same time because it was not always possible to know by which snake species a person had been bitten. Therefore, the serum had to immunize the subject against the venom of every snake species.

In order to find the moment when most antitoxins in the blood cells of the horses is produced, frequent blood samples were taken from the horses. At the point when the highest amount of antibodies were produced, five liters of blood, a tenth of the blood volume of a horse, were taken through a cannula.

The blood was collected in a glass cylinder and brought to the laboratory in the Behring facilities. Above the rouleaux formation which contained the red blood cells, the serum was visible. The color of the serum varied from milky to brown.

Concentration and sterility of the serum was checked carefully, and the serum was filtered many times. Protein content was decreased in order to use the serum for humans.

After the blood sampling, the horses could rest for three to four weeks and received extra food to recover the blood loss. In this period the horses were especially weak and prone to disease and infection.

Within a few years, with experience and observation of the horses, a rouleaux formation of the blood sample was placed back into the animal's body. This procedure is called plasmapheresis.


  1. ^ Mupapa, K; Massamba, M; Kibadi, K; Kuvula, K; Bwaka, A; Kipasa, M; Colebunders, R; Muyembe-Tamfum, JJ (1999). "Treatment of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever with Blood Transfusions from Convalescent Patients (suppl 1)". The Journal of Infectious Diseases. 179 Suppl 1 (Volume 179): S18–S23. doi:10.1086/514298. PMID 9988160. Retrieved 6 August 2014.
  2. ^ "Emil von Behring".
  3. ^ "Serum therapy, especially in its application against diphteria".
  4. ^ Kautz, Gisela (2004). Die Stute Namenlos. Stuttgart: Thienemann-Esslinger. ISBN 9783522176446.
  5. ^ de Andrade, Fábio Goulart, et al. "The Production And Characterization Of Anti-Bothropic And Anti-Crotalic Igy Antibodies In Laying Hens: A Long Term Experiment." Toxicon 66.(2013): 18-24. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
  6. ^ Mortimer, Nathan T., et al. "Parasitoid Wasp Venom SERCA Regulates Drosophila Calcium Levels And Inhibits Cellular Immunity." Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America 110.23 (n.d.): 9427-9432. Biological Abstracts 1969 - Present. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
  7. ^ O'Leary, M.A., K. Maduwage, and G.K. Isbister. "Use Of Immunoturbidimetry To Detect Venom–Antivenom Binding Using Snake Venoms." Journal of Pharmacological & Toxicological Methods 67.3 (2013): 177-181. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.
  8. ^ Vogel, Carl-Wilhelm, Paul W. Finnegan, and David C. Fritzinger. "Humanized Cobra Venom Factor: Structure, Activity, And Therapeutic Efficacy In Preclinical Disease Models." Molecular Immunology 61.2 (2014): 191-203. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Feb. 2015.

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