How a llama named Winter could help fight the coronavirus

A llama named Winter and her tiny antibodies might play a crucial role in combating the coronavirus that causes COVD-19, according to a paper published by an international team of researchers on May 5.

Scientists from Belgium’s VIB-UGent center for medical biotechnology and the University of Texas at Austin initially researched how antibodies could fight the SARS and MERS viruses four years ago, according to Reuters. 

Because SARS is a cousin of the coronavirus, they share essential similarities: They each have a crown shape with protein spikes—the part that attacks other healthy cells—with which an antibody can bind. These similarities allowed the researchers to apply their findings in 2015 to the novel coronavirus. 

The scientists harvested some of the small antibodies—called nanobodies—from Winter’s blood. They used it to create a new antibody that latches on to the spike proteins on the surface of the novel coronavirus and “neutralizes” their effects. 

Because it could be more than a year before the world sees a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists have looked to alternative treatments. Antibody therapy—which has been used most commonly in cancer treatment—is one alternative being explored. 

Antibody therapy also differs from a vaccine because it works immediately. In contrast, a vaccine needs to be introduced to the body months before an infection to be effective, co-senior author Jason McLellan told USA Today. 

Wayne Marasco, an infectious disease specialist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told the Washington Post he thinks the approach could be a “game-changer.”

USA Today reported the research team plans to begin testing on animals soon and hopes to test on humans in two months. 

Sources: Cell, Washington Post, Reuters, USA Today 

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