UK Researchers Say Alpacas Could be Secret Weapon Against COVID-19

Saturday, June 20, 2020 - 13:26

University of Kentucky College of Medicine researchers stated that Alpacas could offer a defense against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease.

Researchers are using the special antibodies made by alpacas, called nanobodies, to help understand the novel coronavirus and potentially develop a treatment that could protect people from being infected, North Kentucky Tribune reports.

Nanobodies are smaller and more stable types of antibodies taken from the immune systems of camelids – which include camels, llamas and alpacas. Nanobodies could be more effective at fighting the disease because their tiny size gives them the ability to fit into spaces on viral proteins that regular antibodies have a hard time penetrating.

“The idea is that nanobodies are small enough to access small pockets on SARS-CoV-2’s spike proteins, which is the part of the virus that attaches to host cells. A nanobody that could block the binding of the spike protein to its cellular receptor could be an effective treatment for COVID-19,” said Sidney Whiteheart, who is co-leading the study with Lou Hersh, both professors in the Department of Molecular & Cellular Biochemistry.

The alpaca trio have been immunized with isolated proteins from SARS-CoV-2 and then researchers collect samples of their blood containing nanobodies produced by their immune systems. In the lab, the nanobodies are extracted, tested, and reproduced at a larger scale for use in research and for therapeutic development.

Virus-binding nanobodies from the alpacas can confer passive immunity in humans and thus help fight a SARS-CoV-2 infection. While passive immunity from a disease is shorter-lived compared to the protection one’s own immune response would provide, it helps protect right away — something that could be valuable as we wait for a vaccine, Hersh says.

“Nanobodies have many qualities that make them ideal for therapeutic development, particularly for COVID-19,” said Hersh. “They are small and stable, making them easier to manipulate, and they can be produced more rapidly and in large quantities at a low cost. They are also easily tolerated by the human immune system and could potentially be inhaled for rapid delivery to the lungs.”

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