Could llamas be the key to fighting the coronavirus? UT researchers propose unique antibody theory

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AUSTIN, Texas — A Belgian llama named Winter could hold the key to fighting the coronavirus.

Researchers at the University of Texas, in coordination with the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium, this week are publishing a paper about the potential use of antibodies found in llamas to fight the coronavirus.

Years ago, when studying two earlier forms of coronavirus, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV, researchers found a certain antibody in Winter and other llamas could effectively attach itself to and neutralize the viruses’ spike protein, the portion that attacks other healthy cells. The team now has formed a new antibody that shows promise for treating SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, by linking two copies of the llama antibody that worked against the earlier SARS virus. They demonstrated that the new antibody neutralizes viruses displaying spike proteins from SARS-CoV-2 in cell cultures.

“While we were working on this project, the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus emerged and the spike proteins are pretty similar between SARS-CoV-2 and the original SARS,” said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT and co-senior author. “We thought that maybe this nanobody, if we isolated it, would also bind to this one.”

Unlike most vaccines, which have to be introduced to the body months before infection to be effective, antibody therapy works almost immediately, McLellan said. A potential treatment using the llama antibodies could provide quick protection for vulnerable populations like the elderly and health care workers.

“Immediately after injection, they’ll basically have immunity to that virus. It will wane over time, after certain number of months perhaps, but they become immediately immune, McLellan said.

The team is publishing their research on May 5 in the journal “Cell,” and will begin animal testing soon, which will be conducted by researchers in Belgium. McLellan said they could advance to human trials in about two months.

If the trials reach a point where an injection would have to be manufactured in mass quantities, scientists could multiply and grow in the antibodies in a controlled environment, meaning no llamas would be sacrificed for their useful antibodies.

Around the world, many research teams are racing to find an effective treatment of the coronavirus, which as of Thursday had infected more than 1 million Americans, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. One team at Oxford University is thought to be at the forefront of the efforts, and hopes to test 6,000 people by the end of May.

Researchers at Texas A&M University are also in the process of testing a treatment for the coronavirus. This week, a team led by Texas A&M is recruiting health care workers to test the effectiveness of a tuberculosis vaccine in fighting the coronavirus.

Things are moving quickly, McLellan said, and he’s confident antibody treatment will be one of the most useful methods of fighting the coronavirus. Still, he’s appreciative of all the efforts scientists are making to slow the spread of the virus.

“They each have pros and cons and can be used differently, and the more development the better. We’ll continue to learn from those for future pandemics,” McLellan said of other research. “We’re excited to be here at UT collaborating with groups all over the world to try and help mitigate this pandemic.”


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