Lab-made llama nanobodies may be a potent treatment for COVID-19

Llamas may be the key to a simple and effective COVID-19 treatment, according to a new study from The Rosalind Franklin Institute. Key to this potential treatment is nanobodies, a unique type of small antibody produced by llamas. This isn't the first time researchers have looked at llama antibodies as a potential way to treat diseases in humans — llamas similarly offer the potential for addressing influenza.

Among other things, antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 sourced from humans have been used to help treat severe cases of COVID-19. Lab-made nanobodies from llamas may one day serve as an alternative treatment, at least based on the results of the study, which involved cell cultures and animal models. According to the researchers, it is possible to make large quantities of these nanobodies in a lab setting.

The study's lead author Professor Ray Owens explained:

Nanobodies have a number of advantages over human antibodies. They are cheaper to produce and can be delivered directly to the airways through a nebuliser or nasal spray, so can be self-administered at home rather than needing an injection. This could have benefits in terms of ease of use by patients but it also gets the treatment directly to the site of infection in the respiratory tract.

A llama named Fifi played a role in this research; the scientists injected the animal with part of the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2, triggering its body to generate nanobodies. Fifi didn't get sick from the injection, but her immune system did mount a response against the spike protein, which is the part of the virus that binds to human cells.

The scientists then harvested a few nanobodies from a sample of the llama's blood and transformed them into short chains featuring three, making them more effective at binding to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The triple-nanobody chains were found to neutralize the original virus variants, as well as the Alpha and Beta variants.

Assuming treatment involving nanobodies eventually gets approved as a COVID-19 treatment, the researchers point out that it'll be more convenient than human antibody treatments — the nanobodies don't need to be kept cold in storage, for example, and it's easier to produce them.