Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) were initially considered as a possible “magic bullet” for in vivo elimination of tumor cells. mAbs represented the first step: however, as they were murine in nature (the earliest experience on the field), they were considered unfit for human applications. This prompted the development of techniques for cloning the variable regions of conventional murine antibodies, genetically mounted on human IgG. The last step in this years-long process was the design for the preparation of fully human reagents. The choice of the target molecule was also problematic, since cancer-specific targets are quite limited in number. To overcome this obstacle in the planning phases of antibody-mediated therapy, attention was focused on a set of normal molecules, whose quantitative distribution may balance a tissue-dependent generalized expression. The results and clinical success obtained with anti-CD20 mAbs revived interest in this type of strategy. Using multiple myeloma (MM) as a tumor model was challenging first of all because the plasma cells and their neoplastic counterpart eluded the efforts of the Workshop on Differentiation Antigens to find a target molecule exclusively expressed by these cells. For this reason, attention was turned to surface molecules which fulfill the requisites of being reasonably good targets, even if not specifically restricted to tumor cells. In 2009, we proposed CD38 as a MM target in virtue of its expression: it is absent on early hematological progenitors, has variable but generalized limited expression by normal cells, but is extremely high in plasma cells and in myeloma. Further, regulation of its expression appeared to be dependent on a variety of factors, including exposure to all-trans retinoic acid (ATRA), a potent and highly specific inducer of CD38 expression in human promyelocytic leukemia cells that are now approved for in vivo use. This review discusses the history of human CD38, from its initial characterization to its targeting in antibody-mediated therapy of human myeloma.
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