In a new study from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, researchers found small, unique antibody-like proteins known as VNARs — derived from the immune systems of sharks — can prevent the virus that causes COVID-19, its variants, and related coronaviruses from infecting human cells.
The new VNARs will not be immediately available as a treatment in people, but they can help prepare for future coronavirus outbreaks.
The shark VNARs were able to neutralize WIV1-CoV, a coronavirus that is capable of infecting human cells but currently circulates only in bats, where SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, likely originated.
Developing treatments for such animal-borne viruses ahead of time can prove useful if those viruses make the jump to people.
In the study, the anti-SARS-CoV-2 VNARs were isolated from Elasmogen’s large synthetic VNAR libraries.
One-tenth the size of human antibodies, the shark VNARs can bind to infectious proteins in unique ways that bolster their ability to halt infection.
The researchers tested the shark VNARs against both infectious SARS-CoV-2 and a “pseudotype,” a version of the virus that can’t replicate in cells.
They identified three candidate VNARs that effectively stopped the virus from infecting human cells. The three shark VNARs were also effective against SARS-CoV-1, which caused the first SARS outbreak in 2003.
The team says these new potential drug molecules against SARS-CoV-2 differ in their mechanism of action compared to other biologics and antibodies targeting this virus.
Future therapies would likely include a cocktail of multiple shark VNARs to maximize their effectiveness against diverse and mutating viruses.
This new class of drug is cheaper and easier to manufacture than human antibodies, and can be delivered into the body through various routes, but has yet to be tested in humans.
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The study is published in Nature Communications. One author of the study is Aaron LeBeau.
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