Alpacas and Their Immune System May Aid in COVID-19 Fight

August 13, 2020 Updated: August 13, 2020

Australian medical scientists in the race to find an effective treatment for COVID-19 have turned to an unlikely source of help—alpacas.

Researchers from The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne, Victoria, are actively investigating whether a rare trait in the alpacas immune system may offer solutions for an effective therapeutic treatment to help humans fight COVID-19.

Camelid species—including the alpaca, camel, and llama—produce miniature antibodies that are considered attractive models for COVID-19 therapies due to their size, researchers explained in an article published on Aug. 11.

They are “highly specific and robust,” the head of the WEHI research team Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham told the Epoch Times on Aug. 13.

“We then extract these extremely small antibodies (called nanobodies) and examine them in the lab to see which are the most effective at blocking the virus,” Tham explained.

Tham noted that once her team identified which nanobodies are best at blocking the virus, they plan to map their structures and use that data “to develop antibody-based therapies that could be safely and effectively used in humans.”

Nanobodies are getting attention from researchers as their structure makes them ready-to-bind, more stable and easy to reproduce than traditional antibodies. But the research is more complicated because they are ten times smaller than regular antibodies.

To visualize the alpaca nanobodies that successfully block the virus, Tham’s team is working with scientists from the Australian Synchrotron at Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.

Speaking to 3aw on Aug. 11, Professor Michael James, senior principal research scientist at the Australian Synchrotron, said that the alpacas get injected with the “spiky bits that stick out from the surface” of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as the “spike” is what a coronavirus uses to enter to our cells and “start replicating.” The spikes are made from non-infectious fragments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“If you can chop up key bits of the antibody that attacks a virus, then you can use those fragments or nanobodies … to bind to the virus and then you can stop the virus from entering our cells,” said James.

The WEHI researchers hope to produce a treatment that can mimic naturally occurring antibodies that prevent the COVID-19 coronavirus from binding to cells in the human lungs, which Tham noted was “the first step in the virus infection cycle.”

Medicines based around antibodies, known as biologics, are already in clinical use for diseases such as cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune conditions.

Not a Vaccine

Tham emphasised to The Epoch Times that the antibody-based therapy was different to a vaccine.

“Vaccines elicit an immune response in humans to produce antibodies, whereas, for antibody-based therapies, we deliver the antibodies directly,” she said.

If effective, the WEHI therapy would be useful in treating COVID-19 and preventing initial infection. But Tham noted that it “would only be effective as long as a person was receiving the therapy.”

Tham and her team at WEHI are part of the COVID-19 “biologics research program” that has brought together Australian academics and leaders in infectious diseases and antibody therapeutics from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, the Doherty Institute, CSL, Affinity Bio, CSIRO, Burnet Institute, and Kirby Institute.

They have received funding from both the Australian federal and Victorian state governments.