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A four-year-old llama named Winter may treat coronavirus with its antibodies, says study

Lauren Frias , Business Insider US
 May 07, 2020, 04:56 PM
llama
Research from Belgian and US scientists suggests that a four-year-old llama named Winter and 130 other llamas may hold the key to neutralising the effects of the virus that causes Covid-19. (Unsplash.com)


  • Research from Belgian and US scientists suggests that a four-year-old llama named Winter and 130 other llamas may hold the key to neutralising the effects of the virus that causes Covid-19.
  • Scientists from Belgium's VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology and the University of Texas at Austin found that Winter was successfully immunised from the spike proteins of the SARS and MERS virus by producing a special kind of camelid antibody.
  • The findings could be applied to the Covid-19 coronavirus - which is a cousin of the SARS virus - and offer early promise as to the potential Winter's blood and antibodies hold in helping treat Covid-19.
  • The research from the llama studies is still in preliminary stages, however, as scientists are still conducting preclinical trials on hamsters, The Washington Post reported.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A four-year-old llama named Winter may hold the key to finding a way to treat the coronavirus that causes the respiratory disease Covid-19, according to US and Belgian scientists studying llama antibodies.

They published their findings in the science journal Cell on Tuesday, which found that Winter and 130 other llamas on the research farm produce a special kind of camelid antibody that may offer an early promise to find a way to neutralise the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2.

The researchers include those from Belgium's VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology as well as the University of Texas at Austin.

The research stemmed back to 2016; the researchers were studying camelid antibody response to the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus - which is a cousin of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 - as well as 2012 MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) virus.

They found that Winter was immunised from the viruses, as llamas can produce antibodies slightly different than the ones humans can produce, which allow it to tackle the spikes of a coronavirus.

Daniel Wrapp, another researcher on the study, told The Washington Post that they were in the midst of wrapping up the SARS/MERS study when the coronavirus outbreak began. By linking two copies of antibodies that could hinder the SARS virus, they were able to find a new antibody that would bind to and neutralise the novel coronavirus.

"The work was a side project in 2016. We thought maybe this was interesting," Xavier Saelens, who co-authored the study from the Belgian side of the collaboration, told Reuters. "Then the new virus came and it became potentially more crucial, more important."

As the race to find a coronavirus treatment continues and the distribution of potential vaccines is at least a year out, antibody research has become a point of interest to counteract the effects of the virus itself.

The research from the llama studies is still in preliminary stages, however. Scientists are still conducting preclinical trials on hamsters, The Post reported. Additional studies are also necessary to determine if it is safe to inject llama antibodies into humans.

"There is still a lot of work to do to try to bring this into the clinic," Saelens told The New York Times. "If it works, llama Winter deserves a statue."

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