An antibody breakthrough may be on the horizon thanks to a llama named Winter.
In 2016, before the current pandemic began, scientists in Belgium were researching whether llamas could produce antibodies against two other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. They injected Winter, who is now 4-years-old and still living on a farm in Belgium, with versions of these viruses over a period of six weeks. After taking blood from her, they found that a particular “single-domain” antibody that is exclusive to the llamas and other camelids was able to bind tightly to the characteristic spikes of SARS-CoV-1, preventing it from attaching and infecting cells in a culture.
“That was exciting to me because I’d been working on this for years,” said Daniel Wrapp, one of the researchers from the Department of Molecular Biosciences at The University of Texas at Austin who was working with Ghent University in Belgium on this project, according to Newsweek. “But there wasn’t a big need for a coronavirus treatment then. Now, this can potentially have some transformational implications, too.”
The research team wondered if the single-domain antibody called VHH-72 would also be effective in binding to the spikes of the current novel coronavirus. It did, but weakly, according to Newsweek. Scientists then decided to join two copies of the antibody to help make it more effective against the SARS-CoV-2 spikes. According to the team, the newly engineered antibody is the first one to neutralize both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2.
The University of Texas at Austin says that the researchers are now preparing to conduct preclinical trials in animals with the hopes of eventually testing in humans. The goal is to develop a treatment that would help people soon after infection from the virus.
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