In the frantic race for a coronavirus cure, scientists have turned to a unusual savior: a mocha-colored llama named Winter.
The 4-year-old wooly camelid, who lives in a research farm in Belgium, is at the center of a new study looking into a small antibody particle that appears to block the virus.
In a paper published Tuesday in the journal Cell, the team of scientists from the US and Belgium said a fragment found in Winter’s antibodies, known as nanobodies, appears to tightly bind to the proteins of the virus and “neutralize” its effect.
The researchers were already looking into llamas’ antibodies as potential treatments for the SARS and MERS outbreaks. The viruses share a corona, or crown, shape with protein spikes that the antibody latches onto.
“The work was a side project in 2016. We thought maybe this was interesting,” said Xavier Saelens, joint leader of the Belgian researchers at Belgium’s VIB-UGent center for medical biotechnology, which teamed up with the University of Texas at Austin for the study.
“Then the new virus came and it became potentially more crucial, more important.”
Scientists often turn to llamas and members of the camel family for antibody research because they create antibodies that are roughly a quarter of the size of those found in humans and can be easily manipulated to fight infections.
The preliminary findings hint at a possible treatment for the virus, but researchers must now study whether the same results hold up in animal and human trials, which could be months away.
The team is set to begin testing on animals soon, but human trials likely wouldn’t come until the end of the year, they said.
With Post wires.