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‘A Llama named Winter’ unsung hero in the fight against COVID-19?

Could a llama named “Winter” be one of the unsung heroes in the war against COVID-19. 

During an interview with Vermont Public Radio, Daniel Wrapp, a graduate student who is associated with Dartmouth and the University of Texas-Austin, talked about the unique nanobodies produced by llamas. 

Nanobodies are a special class of antibodies developed by llamas and members of the camelids family that could aid in COVID-19 treatments.

“We just injected one small portion of the virus, a non-infectious portion of the virus, to elicit these antibodies, sort of prime the llama immune system against the coronaviruses. And then once we had done that, we were able to get the sequence of the antibodies which were raised in response to vaccination.” Wrapp said. 

Nanobodies were first discovered by researchers in the early 90s. The benefit to the smaller antibodies is they can wedge into smaller spaces in the body other antibodies can’t. The research began in an effort to understand how the proteins functioned. Strangely enough, the same nanobodies are also found in sharks.

Research into the camelids special class of antibodies in the war against coronavirus began in 2016. Winter was at that time injected due to recent MERS and SARS outbreaks. The llama is fine now, grazing on a farm peacefully in Belgium since.

“Once we had those sequences, we could produce the nanobodies in lab, so we didn’t have to be continuously drawing blood from these llamas,” Wrapp explains. Researchers stress the nanobodies would not be used as a vaccine, more so as a treatment in the fight against a coronavirus, where nanobodies would be injected into humans. 

Treatment would be directly administered to a patient to protect them for several months, according to researchers. Preclinical trials are currently underway in hamsters. Depending on those results, the next step would be to admit trials in primates, followed by phase 1 clinical testing in humans.

Wrapp estimates treatment research based on the 2016 study of Winter the Llama could be available within a year.


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