UT Austin & VIB-led Team Identify that Special Antibody from Llama can Neutralize SARS-CoV-2 in a Cell Culture

UT Austin & VIB-led Team Identify that Special Antibody from Llama can Neutralize SARS-CoV-2 in a Cell Culture

A team of researchers out of University of Texas VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently published a peer-reviewed study revealing that the blood from a South American camelid, the llama, could represent the path forward for new treatments for SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. As it turns out, this domesticated animal, used widely for meat and pack animal by Andean cultures since the Pre-Columbian era, has something very special if these researchers are spot-on. The team reported that the Llamas’ special antibodies, when fused, actually create an entirely new antibody that can actually bind to the coronaviruses’ spike protein. With this new llama-derived antibody, it can actually prevent SARS-CoV-2 from infecting additional cells in the culture. Can this work in preclinical research in animals? In humans?

Thanks to A Llama Named ‘Winter’

A UT Austin grad student, Daniel Wrapp, hopes he can some day thank a 4-year old llama called Winter—perhaps a central character in the global, scientific effort to stop COVID-19. A study co-author, Wrapp and researcher Jason McLellan partnered with a team at Ghent University where Winter actually lives. The National Institutes of Health and others from Germany also participated in this study which actually commenced back in 2016.

The First Hypothesis

Back in 2016, the team suggested that the Camelid’s antibodies could be harnessed to develop treatments against viruses such as SARS and MERS. As it turns out, Wrap reports, “Llamas produce a special class of antibodies called VHHs, and they’re about half the size of a conventional antibody that you or I would produce.” Due to this smaller size, they can be harnessed—utilized in ways that could be beneficial for “…making them potentially attractive therapeutic candidates.” 

The team found that when combining two of the animal’s antibodies they found the result noticeable in its ability to stop the infection of the SARS and MERS viruses independently. As the researchers moved to draft their findings the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The Pandemic Hits & a Finding

The teams refocused on SARS-CoV-2 and, according to Wrap, “So we tested our SARS antibody for reactivity against the new virus” and they found this was “cross-reactive” meaning it had the capability of not only binding to SARS but also to SARS-CoV-2 the virus behind COVID-19, reported KUT 95 (Austin’s NPR Station)

Moving Forward

Now the Ghent University team has commenced with an effort to engineer the antibody into a drug that enables the use of a nebulizer which is a machine that can transfer medication from liquid to a vapor that could be inhaled. The team now plans to conduct preclinical studies in animals (hamsters or nonhuman primates) with the hopes of human studies in the not-to-distance future.  The goal would be to develop a medicine that could be taken right after contracting the SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author, reports, “This is one of the first antibodies to neutralize SARS-CoV-2.”

Study Support

The study was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID),—part of the NIH, VIB, the Research Foundation—Flanders (Belgium), Flanders Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Belgium) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Germany).

Corresponding Authors

Jason S. McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin

Bert Schepens, VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology

Xavier Saelens, VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology

Note, other authors including Daniel Wrapp can be viewed from source