Llamas could play a role in treating Covid-19 in the future
Antibodies from the adorable animals could potentially treat the virus and be taken as a nasal spray.
A unique type of antibody produced by llamas could provide a new frontline treatment against Covid-19 that can be taken by patients as a simple nasal spray, according to new research.
Scientists at the UK's Rosalind Franklin Institute say they have shown that a smaller, simpler form of antibodies generated by llamas and camels called nanobodies can effectively target the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.
Their research found that short chains of the molecules, which can be produced in large quantities in the laboratory, significantly reduced signs of the disease when administered to infected animal models.
The nanobodies bind tightly to the virus, neutralising it, and could provide a cheaper and easier to use alternative to human antibodies taken from patients who have recovered from Covid-19, the institute said.
Human antibodies have been a key treatment for serious cases during the pandemic, but typically need to be administered by infusion through a needle in hospital.
Public Health England described the research, which is still at an early stage, as having “significant potential for both the prevention and treatment of Covid-19”, stating that the nanobodies “are among the most effective SARS-CoV-2 neutralising agents we have ever tested".
Speaking about nanobodies' advantages over human antibodies, lead author of the research Professor Ray Owens said:
“They are cheaper to produce and can be delivered directly to the airways through a nebuliser or nasal spray, so can be self-administered at home rather than needing an injection.
"This could have benefits in terms of ease of use by patients but it also gets the treatment directly to the site of infection in the respiratory tract.”
The research team was able to generate the nanobodies by injecting a portion of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein into a llama named Fifi who is part of the antibody production facility at the University of Reading.
The spike protein is found on the outside of the virus and is responsible for binding to human cells so it can infect them.
"Although the injections did not make Fifi sick, it triggered her immune system to fight off the virus protein by generating nanobodies against it," the Rosalind Franklin Institute said.
Llama antibodies have “significant potential” as potent Covid-19 treatment - new research published this morning in @NatureComms.
This was done in collaboration with researchers from
@PHE_uk, @LivUni and @OxfordStrubi
Read more here https://t.co/HoNYsfFPgr pic.twitter.com/RwYyUAEdo7
— Rosalind Franklin Institute (@RosFrankInst) September 22, 2021
A small blood sample was then taken from the llama and the researchers were then able to purify four nanobodies capable of binding to the Covid-19 virus.
The nanobodies were later combined together into chains of three to increase their ability to bind to the virus. These were then produced in cells in the laboratory.
The team found that three nanobody chains were able to neutralise both the original variants of the Covid-19 virus and the Alpha variant.
A fourth nanobody chain, meanwhile, was able to neutralise the Beta variant.
When one of the nanobody chains was administered to hamsters infected with the virus, researchers said the animals showed a marked reduction in disease, losing far less weight after seven days than those who remained untreated.
Hamsters that received the nanobody treatment were also reported to have had a lower viral load in their lungs and airways after seven days than untreated animals.
“While vaccines have proven extraordinarily successful, not everyone responds to vaccination and immunity can wane in individuals at different times,” said Director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute Professor James Naismith.
“Having medications that can treat the virus is still going to be very important, particularly as not all of the world is being vaccinated at the same speed and there remains a risk of new variants capable of bypassing vaccine immunity emerging.”
The research team now are hoping to obtain funding so they can conduct further research needed to prepare for clinical studies in humans.
Their findings were published in the Nature Communication journal.
You can read the full study here.