The quest for an effective COVID-19 treatment has led one research team to find an unlikely partner for their work: a llama named Winter, ScienceDaily cited a study. The team from Austin’s University of Texas, the National Institutes of Health, and Belgium’s Ghent University announced their results in the Cell newspaper on May 5 on a possible avenue for coronavirus treatment involving lamas. The paper is currently available as a pre-proof online, meaning that it is peer-reviewed but undergoes final format.
Terming this as one of the first known antibodies to neutralize SARS-CoV-2, Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author, made a reference to the virus that causes COVID-19. The researchers linked two copies of a special form of llamas-produced antibody to build a new antibody that tightly binds to a main protein on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This protein, called the spike protein, will split the virus into host cells. Initial results suggest that the antibody blocks viruses from infecting cells in culture that show this spike protein. Further, the team is all set to conduct studies in hamsters, with the goal of developing a treatment that could help infected people later.
This will be especially beneficial for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, who are staging a modest response to vaccinations, suggesting their safety might be incomplete. Health care staff and others at elevated risk for virus exposure can also benefit from immediate safety.
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As the immune systems of llamas detect foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, these animals develop two forms of antibodies: one which is identical to human antibodies, and another which is only about a quarter of the size. Such smaller ones can be nebulised and used in an inhaler, called single-domain antibodies or nanobodies.
Who exactly is the Ilama called Winter?
Winter, the llama, is 4 years old and still lives on a Belgian countryside farm, along with around 130 other llama and alpacas. Her role in the experiment occurred in 2016 when she was around 9 months old and two earlier coronaviruses were being investigated by the researchers: SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Throughout the course of about six weeks, she was injected with stable spike proteins from those viruses in a method similar to humans having shots to immunize them against a virus.
Researchers then obtained a sample of blood and isolated antibodies that bind to each variant of the spike protein.
One showed great promise in halting a virus that shows SARS-CoV-1 spike proteins.