A peer-reviewed study, to be published in the journal Cell on May 5, says alpaca blood may be the key to finding new treatments for COVID-19, which could ease the stress of a coronavirus pandemic. The study details how special antibodies in alpaca blood bind together to create a new antibody that binds to the spike proteins used by coronaviruses to infect cells.
By binding to the spike protein, this antibody prevents coronavirus (i.e. SARS-CoV-2) from infecting other cells in culture.
“This is one of the first known antibodies to neutralise SARS-CoV-2,” said Jason McLellan, a molecular biologist at the University of Texas at Austin and co-lead author of the study.
The discovery is partly thanks to the efforts of a four-year-old alpaca named Winter from Belgium. In 2016, Winter helped scientists study the coronavirus that causes SARS and MERS, and over a period of several weeks Winter received injections of the active spike protein.
As a result, scientists were able to identify antibodies that appeal to these spikes and isolate antibodies that had a hope of neutralizing the virus. Four years on, Winter is still alive and well, and this early work means we’re one step closer to being in the middle and COVID-19.
“It’s exciting for me because I’ve been studying it for years,” said Daniel Wrapp, the study’s lead author, who developed a 3D structure of SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins back in March. “But there was not much demand for coronavirus treatment at the time. This is just basic research. Now, it may also have some transformational significance. “
Other alpacas produce antibodies that differ from those of humans, and the positive performance of the 4-year-old alpaca, regardless of the early success of the study, can be found, although this does not mean that the antibody can be used immediately as a prevention or treatment.
The team from the University of Texas at Austin is now looking at preclinical studies of animals such as hamsters or non-human primates, with the ultimate goal of developing a treatment for humans.