Scientists create COVID-19 treatment using llama antibodies

An antibody produced by llamas seems particularly effective at neutralizing a key protein of the novel coronavirus.

Scientists create COVID-19 treatment using llama antibodies
University of Texas at Austin.
  • The findings are based on coronavirus research from 2016.
  • The new antibody was created by linking two copies of an antibody that was produced by a llama in response to coronavirus exposure.
  • The treatment hasn't been tested on people, but researchers hope to conduct trials on animals.


A llama named Winter may have played a part in helping scientists find a treatment for Covid-19.

In a pre-proof paper set to be published in the journal Cell on May 5, researchers say they've produced an antibody that blocks SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells. The new antibody, which is based on antibodies produced by llamas, neutralizes a key protein on the virus, called the spike protein. The virus uses this spike protein to invade human cells.

"This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author, told The University of Texas at Austin News.

So far, the team has shown only that the antibody works in vitro on a fake version of the coronavirus. (The technical term is pseudotyped, which means a version of the virus that can't infect people, but does display the spike proteins). The team plans to soon conduct trials on animals, and then, depending on those results, on people.

Inspired by a special kind of antibody produced by llamas, researchers created a synthetic antibody dubbed VHH-72Fc (blue) that binds tightly to the spike protein on SARS-CoV-2 (pink, green and orange), blocking the virus from infecting cells in culture. The spike protein structure was discovered by part of the same research team and published in the journal Science on February 19, 2020.

University of Texas at Austin.


The treatment would be an antibody therapy, not a vaccine.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," McLellan said. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease."

The team's work is based on coronavirus research that began in 2016, when researchers injected Winter with spike proteins of two earlier coronaviruses: SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. After isolating the antibodies that Winter produced, the team discovered one that was particularly effective at binding to and neutralizing the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-1.

The team wondered whether this antibody might also neutralize SARS-CoV-2. Tests showed that it did—but weakly. So, the researchers linked two copies of that original antibody to form a new one, and they discovered that it effectively neutralized both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2.

"I thought this would be a small side project," Dorien De Vlieger, a postdoctoral scientist at Ghent University's Vlaams Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), told The University of Texas at Austin News. "Now the scientific impact of this project became bigger than I could ever expect. It's amazing how unpredictable viruses can be."

University of Texas at Austin.

The team hopes people will someday be able to receive these antibodies through an inhaler. That'd be possible because llamas produce antibodies in two forms: one that's similar to humans', and another that's about a quarter of the size. These smaller "nanobodies" could be delivered via inhaler.

"That makes them potentially really interesting as a drug for a respiratory pathogen because you're delivering it right to the site of infection," Daniel Wrapp, a graduate student in McLellan's lab and co-first author of the paper, told The University of Texas at Austin News.

The hunt for Covid-19 treatments

There's currently no cure, vaccine or widely accepted treatment for Covid-19. Doctors and researchers around the world have experimented with various drugs, including hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine and leronlimab, but most results have been mixed at best.

Remdesivir may be the exception. Recent research on this antiviral drug suggests that it can speed recovery for COVID-19 patients. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House coronavirus task force said it "doesn't seem like a knockout 100 percent," but "it is a very important proof of concept, because what it has proven is that a drug can block this virus."

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

Videos
  • There are numerous strategies for building and maintaining a high-performing team, but unfortunately they are not plug-and-play. What works for some companies will not necessarily work for others. Erin Meyer, co-author of No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, shares one alternative employed by one of the largest tech and media services companies in the world.
  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
Keep reading Show less
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
Culture & Religion
She was walking down the forest path with a roll of white cloth in her hands. It was trailing behind her like a long veil.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast