Herd immunity: could llamas provide the coronavirus breakthrough?

Herd immunity: could llamas provide the coronavirus breakthrough?
Herd immunity: could llamas provide the coronavirus breakthrough?

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - The key to a cure for Covid-19 could be standing in a field in southern England, grazing on green pastures.

A herd of llamas in the town of Reading could hold the key to treating patients who are severely ill with the disease, according to new research.

Immune systems produce antibodies when they are attacked by infections. The woolly animals are able to naturally produce tiny antibodies – called nanobodies – that can latch onto the deadly ‘spikes’ of SarsCoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19. Camels and alpacas can also produce nanobodies, which have a simpler structure than human anti-bodies.

Scientists from Rosalind Franklin Institute at Oxford University, Diamond Light Source – the UK's national synchrotron, which accelerates electrons to produce bright light that scientists use to study viruses and vaccines – and Public Health England have engineered llama anti-bodies to create an immune-boosting therapy. The therapy in the study, published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, could undergo clinical trials within months.

"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," Study author Professor James Naismith, of Oxford University, said.

"So we take that key and use molecular biology to polish bits of it, until we've cut a key that fits."

"These nano-bodies have the potential to be used in a similar way to convalescent serum - effectively stopping progression of the virus in patients who are ill,” he added.

"We were able to combine one of the nanobodies with a human antibody and show the combination was even more powerful than either alone.

"Combinations are particularly useful, since the virus has to change multiple things at the same time to escape – this is very hard for the virus to do. The nanobodies also have potential as a powerful diagnostic."

Researchers are now screening antibodies from Fifi, a llama based at the University of Reading, after she was immunised with harmless purified virus proteins.

The team is looking examining whether the animal’s immune system has produced different antibodies from those already identified, which will enable new nanobodies to be tested against the coronavirus.

A similar study where llamas were immunised with SarsCoV-2 took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, last month. Scientists in the Argentinian capital also believe that the Covid-19 can be neutralised using nano-antibodies grown in llamas.

Updated: July 14, 2020 01:33 AM

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