Llama antibodies might bring us closer to neutralizing COVID-19


Winter (front) and her llama cohort may play a key role in neutralizing the virus.

Tim Coppens

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Whoever had llamas from Belgium on their social isolation bingo card, consider yourself free to tick that box. 

According to a peer-reviewed study, due to be published in Cell on May 5, llama blood might hold the key to unlocking new treatments for COVID-19 — and lessen the stress the coronavirus pandemic has placed on the world.

The study details how special antibodies within llama blood can be joined together to create a new antibody with the capacity to bind the spike protein the coronavirus uses to infect cells. By binding onto the spike protein, the antibody can prevent the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, from infecting other cells in culture.

“This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2,” said Jason McLellan, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas at Austin and co-senior author of the study.

Winter is four years old and still living on a farm in the Belgian countryside.

Tim Coppens

This was discovered, in part, thanks to the efforts of a 4-year-old Belgian llama named Winter. In 2016, Winter helped scientists to study the coronaviruses which cause SARS and MERS by receiving injections of active spike proteins over the course of weeks. 

As a result, scientists were able to identify antibodies that gravitated towards these spike proteins and isolate the ones that showed promise in neutralising the virus. Four years on, Winter is thriving and that early work means we’re one step closer to neutralizing COVID-19.

“That was exciting to me because I’d been working on this for years,” said Daniel Wrapp, co-first author of the study and part of the research team which produced a 3D map of the structure of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein back in March. “But there wasn’t a big need for a coronavirus treatment then. This was just basic research. Now, this can potentially have some translational implications, too.”

Llamas and other camelids produce different types of antibodies to humans and a particular type is only a quarter of the size of the antibodies seen in humans. That’s an advantage the researchers think they can take into account, allowing it to be nebulized and used in inhalers.

Regardless of the study’s early successes — and Winter the llama’s positive demeanor — this doesn’t mean the antibodies are immediately viable as a preventative or cure. 

The team from the University of Texas in Austin are now setting their sights on preclinical studies in animals such as hamsters or nonhuman primates, with an eventual goal of developing a treatment for humans.

In any case, it’s nothing to spit at.


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