Antibodies from llamas may lead to new COVID-19 treatment

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In a new study, researchers suggest that antibodies from llamas may lead to COVID-19 treatment.

They hope the special antibodies that llamas make can be directed against SARS-CoV-2 to help find our way out of the pandemic.

The research was conducted by a team at Rockefeller University.

Humans, too, make antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, and many groups are working on developing treatments based on them.

Llama antibodies, however, come in a simpler design than their human counterparts.

The team says llamas make this variant of an antibody that just has fantastic properties. It contains the good disease-recognizing parts of a human antibody, packed into a condensed warhead.

This “warhead” is just one-tenth the size of a normal antibody, and can be cloned out to form miniature antibodies, termed nanobodies.

Easy to mass-produce, nanobodies are an attractive source for developing treatments that boost people’s immunity to a particular pathogen.

Doctors need doses of therapeutics and diagnostic tests for many millions of people. Nanobodies could become one more weapon in our arsenal against COVID-19, and potentially a widely available one.

In order to get there, the team is now extracting antibodies from llamas and examining their molecular properties to identify those most effective against the virus.

Like all coronavirus research, this project is in its infancy; but if successful, it will allow the scientists to advance these potent antibodies towards the development of both treatments and diagnostic tests.

Their study is one of nearly 20 COVID-19 projects that have been launched by Rockefeller researchers since early March in an effort to better understand the SARS-CoV-2 virus and speed the development of new treatments.

In most mammals including humans, a typical antibody consists of two proteins arranged in a sophisticated formation of four protein subunits.

Llamas, camels, and other species of the Camelidae family make antibodies consisting of only one protein that, in spite of their simplicity, have been shown to be highly effective.

Researchers hope that llama nanobodies will turn out to have some unique advantages over human antibodies when it comes to fighting SARS-CoV-2.

Their small size may allow them to better access the dense pack of spike proteins that cover the surface of the coronavirus and enable its entry into host cells.

While small, they can also be more stable, and potentially could be nebulized and taken in an inhaler, like asthma medicines, as opposed to an injection.

This means therapeutic antibodies will be brought directly to the sites of viral replication in our lungs and airways.

Moreover, it’s possible to combine multiple nanobodies, each targeting a different part of the virus, into one supermolecule that hits multiple sites at once.

One author of the study is Michael P. Rout, a structural biologist at Rockefeller.

The study is published in Nature Methods.

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