PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Llamas could be the new key to helping humans fight the coronavirus.
According to the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, medical researchers have discovered a way to extract “tiny but extremely powerful SARS-CoV-2 antibody fragments from llamas.” SARS-CoV-2 is what causes COVID-19 infections.
The researchers used a llama they have dubbed Wally. He is named after the head researcher’s dog and lives on a farm in Massachusetts.
.@PittTweet’s Dr. Yi Shi (@Proteomics_Shi) has discovered tiny but powerful llama “nanobodies” that could become inhalable drugs to treat and prevent #COVID19, published in @ScienceMagazine. https://t.co/8ZZiTc6VS0
— UPMC (@UPMCnews) November 5, 2020
UPMC says, “These special llama antibodies, called ‘nanobodies,’ are much smaller than human antibodies and many times more effective at neutralizing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They’re also much more stable.”
Dr. Yi Shi, Pitt assistant professor of cell biology, said, “Nature is our best inventor. The technology we developed surveys SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing nanobodies at an unprecedented scale, which allowed us to quickly discover thousands of nanobodies with unrivaled affinity and specificity.”
Researchers say they immunized Wally “with a piece of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.” About two months later, they say Wally’s immune system produced these mature nanobodies against the virus.
The researchers then worked to identify the nanobodies in Wally’s blood that most strongly bind to SARS-CoV-2.
The researchers then went to Pitt’s Center for Vaccine Research.
That’s where scientists “exposed the nanobodies to live SARS-CoV-2 virus and found that just a fraction of a nanogram could neutralize enough virus to spare a million cells from being infected.”
UPMC says “these nanobodies can sit at room temperature for six weeks. They can also “tolerate being fashioned into an inhalable mist,” which would deliver antiviral therapy straight to the lungs of the patient.
Doctors say these llama nanobodies could also be a much more affordable treatment for coronavirus.
“Nanobodies could potentially cost much less. They’re ideal for addressing the urgency and magnitude of the current crisis,” Dr. Shi said.
So when could we see this treatment become available?
“It has to be delivered safely. Phase one, two and three trials. Takes time. Can be bulked up rather quickly,” said Director of Vaccine Research Dr. Paul Duprex.
If and when it becomes available, doctors say it would likely be administered as a nasal spray, which would be delivered directly to the lungs for treatment or to prevent the virus from progressing.
“It’s really good to have multiple ways, to have multiple interventions, in development. It just takes time to get things into the pipeline to be used therapeutically,” said Dr. Duprex.
There’s still a full slate of trials for this to go through before it’s approved. Researchers say that while any vaccine can take a long time to develop, this specific drug could move a lot faster.
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