Yes, you read that headline correctly – llamas. Turns out these fuzzy creatures have evolved antibodies that no other mammals have, and they may be the secret ingredient in future COVID-19 treatments.
Grace Huckins, writing for Wired, says that millions of years ago, a distant relative of what are now llamas, camels and alpacas managed to develop an unusual type of antibody. These llama antibodies are called “nanobodies”, and rececent findings are showing that they may be able to do something really cool. Researchers from the Rosalind Franklin Institute and the University of Oxford reported that two of these nanobodies could prevent SARS – CoV-2 from infecting human cells.
How do these llama antibodies work?
“Most species, including humans, make very similar antibodies,” writes Huckins. “Typically, antibodies developed for medical treatments are first produced in lab animals such as rabbits, then isolated and genetically tweaked to more closely resemble human antibodies. But a few species, including llamas, their fellow camelids, and sharks, are antibody oddballs. These animals make nanobodies, so called because they are substantially smaller than their antibody cousins.”
These teeny tiny nanobodies are also considerably more stable than the antibodies we humans can produce, meaning they can survive, and remain effective, in harsher environments – like the human stomach.
They work by attaching onto what is called the “spike protein” on the outside of the virus. When they’re properly attached to the spike protein, the virus cannot enter our cells and infect us. Our own antibodies may not do a great job of that when it comes to this new coronavirus.These camelid nanobodies, though, can be mutated and engineered to attach more effectively to SARS-Cov-2 and prevent it from entering human cells, thus neutralising it.
Why is this finding so important?
The discovery of this technique has been described by the lead researcher on the study, Professor James Naismith, as something similar to cutting a key which fits the coronavirus lock. Remember, coronaviruses have been around a long time and many of them have been hard to create vaccines for – think of the common cold that goes around every year.
“With the llama’s antibodies, we have keys that don’t quite fit – they’ll go into the lock but won’t turn all the way round,” he’s quoted by Victoria Gill at the BBC. “So we take that key and use molecular biology to polish bits of it, until we’ve cut a key that fits.”
It seems also that this technique may come in handy in case we need to fight off other new coronaviruses in future. Considering the speed at which zoonotic diseases are jumping from animals to humans these days (as a result of our lifestyles) it seems highly likely that this will happen. According to the study, The SARS-CoV-2 virus is already more transmissible than previous coronaviruses and causes a more serious illness than influenza, so having a treatment for future, similar cases could be a vital asset.
Furthermore, the antibodies our own bodies produce after COVID-19 infection seem to be short-lived. Thanks to these llama antibodies, having a more efficient, perhaps longer-term solution may be an important step in overcoming this pandemic.
“Essentially, we’re doing in the lab what all immune systems do in the body,” Prof Naismith says. “And we can do this very quickly, so if the virus changes suddenly, or we get a new virus, we can engineer new nanobodies in the lab.”
So, while they may be weird and funny-looking creatures, it seems that llamas might actually be extremely helpful to humanity in the upcoming months. The world is on tenterhooks as we wait for the discovery of a successful (and safe) vaccine that can bring about the end to the weird turn our lives have taken. Here, at least, we may finally have some good news that can help us overcome similar challenges in the future – And we also get to spam you with images of llamas and alpacas while we report it.