The hunt for an effective treatment for COVID-19 has led one team of researchers to find an improbable ally for their work: a llama named Winter. The team — from The University of Texas at Austin, the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium — reports their findings about a potential avenue for a coronavirus treatment involving llamas on May 5 in the journal Cell.
The researchers linked two copies of a special kind of antibody produced by llamas to create a new antibody that binds tightly to a key protein on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This protein, called the spike protein, allows the virus to break into host cells. Initial tests indicate that the antibody blocks viruses that display this spike protein from infecting cells in culture.
“This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2,” said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author, referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.
The team is now preparing to conduct preclinical studies in animals such as hamsters or nonhuman primates, with the hopes of next testing in humans. The goal is to develop a treatment that would help people soon after infection with the virus.
“Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection,” McLellan said. “With antibody therapies, you’re directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease.”
This would be especially helpful for vulnerable groups such as elderly people, who mount a modest response to vaccines, which means that their protection may be incomplete. Health care workers and other people at increased risk of exposure to the virus can also benefit from immediate protection.
When llamas’ immune systems detect foreign invaders such as bacteria and viruses, these animals (and other camelids such as alpacas) produce two types of antibodies: one that is similar to human antibodies and another that’s only about a quarter of the size. These smaller ones, called single-domain antibodies or nanobodies, can be nebulized and used in an inhaler.
“That makes them potentially really interesting as a drug for a respiratory pathogen because you’re delivering it right to the site of infection,” said Daniel Wrapp, a graduate student in McLellan’s lab and co-first author of the paper.