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Llama Antibodies May Help Us Fight a Human Coronavirus Infection

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with a first-class honors degree in biology. She often writes about the scientific basis of disease.

A llama in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site in Peru

A llama in front of the Machu Picchu archeological site in Peru

Nanobodies and SARS-CoV-2

Llamas are interesting animals to observe and meet. They are mammals, like us, but their immune system has some unusual features. These features may be helpful for us in our fight against some of the viruses that make us sick, including the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that is currently causing so many problems in the form of the COVID-19 disease.

Antibodies are proteins made in human and llama bodies (and the bodies of other animals) that attack microscopic invaders such as viruses. Llama blood also contains a group of smaller and simpler antibodies, which we don't produce. These so-called "nanobodies" can be manipulated in the lab. Experiments have shown that the nanobodies or slightly changed versions of them can attack a protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 in lab equipment.

Influenza viruses and coronaviruses belong to different groups. Nevertheless, llama antibodies are also showing promise with respect to destroying flu viruses. The immune system of the animals is intriguing and seems well worth exploring.

Llama Facts

Llamas, alpacas, and camels are relatives. They all produce nanobodies. The animals belong to the class Mammalia, the order Artiodactyla, and the family Camelidae. Llamas have the scientific name Lama glama. The genus name contains a single letter while the common name contains two.

Llamas live in herds in South America and are grazers. The animals on the continent are used as pack animals and for meat. They are domesticated animals that don't exist in the wild. They may have white, brown, or black hair or a mixture of colours.

Llamas are kept as pets in some areas, including North America. If they are trained properly from a young age, they can be friendly towards people (and even very friendly) and show interest in the surroundings that they encounter with their human. Some individuals are used as therapy animals. The llamas that I've met have been lovely animals. From what I've read, though, the correct upbringing is important in order to avoid the development of an adult that spits and kicks.

The immune system of the family Camelidae is interesting and has novel features compared to the human system. In North America, Lama glama is the species that is most often investigated with respect to immunity and the potential to help humans.

Antibodies and Nanobodies

Antibodies are proteins that join with specific structures that they find on invaders in the body. They are also known as immunoglobulins. A typical mammalian antibody is a protein consisting of four chains of amino acids. It has a flexible Y shape, as shown in the illustration above. The sequence of amino acids at the tips of the four chains is very important because it determines which antigen the antibody can bind with. The antigen is a region on an invading particle. Once the antibody had joined to the antigen, the particle bearing the antigen is recognized as an invader and the immune system destroys it by a specific mechanism.

A llama nanobody is much smaller than an antibody. According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) press release referenced below, "on average, these proteins are about a tenth the weight of most human antibodies". The press release says that a nanobody is basically just a section of the antibody molecule. Its simpler structure means that it's easier for scientists to modify than a larger antibody.

At least three groups of researchers are investigating llama antibodies in relation to SARS-CoV-2: one from the NIH, one from the University of Pittsburgh, and one from the Rosalind Franklin Institute in the UK. All of the groups have obtained encouraging results from their work so far and are continuing their investigations.

Coronaviruses and Their Structure

Types

Many types of coronaviruses exist. Currently, seven of them are known to infect humans. The diseases that they cause are not always serious. Some cases of the common cold are caused by a coronavirus instead of the more usual rhinovirus.

Three members of the coronavirus group can cause more serious problems in some people. SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2) is one type and causes the COVID-19 disease (coronavirus disease 2019). Additional types are the MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) and SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory System) viruses.

Structure

The core of the SARS-CoV-2 virus contains single-stranded RNA (ribonucleic acid), which is its genetic material. Our cells also contain RNA, but our genetic material is a related chemical called DNA , or deoxyribonucleic acid. This chemical is double-stranded.

The RNA core of the coronavirus is surrounded by beads of proteins. The protein molecules are attached to the RNA and are known as nucleocapsid proteins. The nucleocapsid proteins are in turn surrounded by a lipid envelope that bears three additional types of protein: the membrane, envelope, and spike types.

As can be seen in the picture below, coronaviruses are covered by the projecting spike proteins. The spikes look somewhat like the projections of a crown and give the entities their name. They play a critical role in the ability of the virus to infect cells.

A depiction of the SARS-CoV-2 virus

A depiction of the SARS-CoV-2 virus

Reproduction of the Virus

Viruses are unable to reproduce on their own. They enter their host cell (or in some cases they inject their nucleic acid into the cell) and "force" it to make new virions. A virion is an individual virus.The virions then break out of the cell and can infect other ones. The reproduction of SARS-CoV-2 can be summarized by the following steps.

  1. The coronavirus joins to the ACE-2 receptor that's located on the surface of some cells.
  2. Once the virus has been moved into the cell, it releases its genome (nucleic acid).
  3. The genome instructs the host cell's "machinery" to make new viral components.
  4. The components assemble to make new virions.
  5. The virions leave the cell by a process called exocytosis.

The video below gives a good description of how a virus reproduces. Near the beginning, the narrator describes “what a virus wants”. There is no evidence at the moment that a virus has volition or consciousness, though it is more complex than some people realize. Discussions about whether viruses should be considered living creatures continue.

Possible Effects of SARS-CoV-2

At the time when this article was last updated, over 4 million people around the world had died from a SARS-CoV-2 infection. (The latest data can be obtained from the World Health Organization link in the "References" section below.) The virus usually enters the body by inhalation and affects the respiratory system. It can also affect other parts of the body, including the intestine and the nervous system. One of the mysteries of the disease is why people respond to the virus in different ways.

The dangerous symptoms that develop as a result of the infection are often caused by the body’s response to the virus rather than the virus itself. The immune system “knows” that conditions in the body are abnormal and is stimulated to act. It sometimes goes into overdrive in its efforts to remove the threat.

The immune system may stimulate a "cytokine storm". Cytokines are molecules that act as chemical messengers. During a cytokine storm, certain types of white blood cells secrete an excessive quantity of cytokines, which stimulate a massive amount of inflammation. Minor inflammation that lasts for a short time can promote healing, but major inflammation that lasts for a long time can be dangerous.

Possible Treatments

Doctors try to calm an overactive immune system and compensate for its effects. They also treat other symptoms that develop. Antiviral drugs exist. Some types are used in an effort to treat the coronavirus infection. Fewer antiviral drugs exist than antibiotics, however. Antibiotics affect bacteria, not viruses.

Antibodies made by infected humans have been used to treat coronavirus patients. It’s not always easy to find suitable and safe serum from people who have recovered from the coronavirus, however. In addition, a large dose of the antibodies is needed to avoid dilution in the body and the treatment is expensive. Nanobodies might be concentrated more easily and the treatment might be less expensive.

SARS-CoV-2 was called a “novel” virus when it first appeared because it hadn’t been noticed before. It’s possible that more novel coronaviruses will appear and that our knowledge of llama antibodies will be helpful for them as well as the current virus.

Llama Nanobodies in the NIH Experiment

The spike protein on the surface of the coronavirus normally binds to a receptor known as angiotensin converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, that's found on the surface of some cells. This enables the virus to enter the cells. Researchers have likened the spike of the virus to a key. The lock that it opens is the ACE2 receptor.

In an NIH experiment, scientists gave a llama named Cormac a purified version of the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The injection of the spike alone without the genetic material of the virus was harmless for Cormac. The spike inoculation was administered multiple times over a twenty-eight day period. Cormac's body made multiple versions of nanobodies as a result.

The researchers discovered that at least one of Cormac's nanobodies (called NIH-CovVnD-112) could attach to the spikes of the intact SARS-CoV-2 virus and stop it from binding to the ACE2 receptor. This would prevent the virus from entering cells.

The University of Pittsburgh Experiment

The University of Pittsburgh used a male llama named Wally in their studies. Wally is black. He reminded one of the researchers of his black Labrador retriever, who bears the same name. The results of the research were announced shortly before the NIH's and are similarly hopeful.

As in the NIH experiment, the researchers immunized the llama with a piece of the coronavirus's spike protein. After around two months, Wally's immune system had produced nanobodies to fight the spike sections.

The researchers analyzed the nanobodies and their effects. They chose the antibodies that bonded most strongly to the spike protein of the virus. They then exposed the intact coronavirus to the chosen nanobodies in lab equipment. They found that "just a fraction of a nanogram could neutralize enough viruses to spare a million cells from being infected." The results of the experiment sound wonderful, but they were observed in laboratory equipment and not in humans.

This llama is lying down, a behaviour also known as cushing or kushing.

This llama is lying down, a behaviour also known as cushing or kushing.

Rosalind Franklin Institute Investigation

The Rosalind Franklin Institute is also exploring llama antibodies. It's good that multiple institutions are exploring the relationship between the nanobodies of a llama and the coronavirus infection. This is not only because the results of one group can be confirmed by another but also because each group has explored slightly different aspects of the nanobodies.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958) was a chemist who did important work in helping us to understand DNA, RNA, and viruses. Sadly, she died at an early age from cancer. Scientists at the institute named in her honour have not only found the same results as the previous two institutions but have also discovered that joining an effective llama nanobody with a human antibody creates a more powerful tool than either item alone.

Hope for the Future

The fact that three groups of scientists in different institutions have obtained similar results in their research is a very hopeful sign. The discoveries might have applications beyond the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It will probably be some time before we know whether this is the case. As one of the people in the first video says, tests on humans must be done to demonstrate effectiveness and safety. Assuming the treatment is approved, the nanobodies may be administered in an inhaled form or as a nasal spray.

The unusual immune system of llamas could be very helpful for us. The benefits of their antibodies might extend beyond influenza and SARS-CoV-2. Caution is needed in interpreting the results of the nanobody studies because the treatment hasn't been tested in humans yet. The possible benefits of the research are exciting.

References

  • Information about llamas form the Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Strains of coronavirus from WebMD
  • Structure and behavior of the SARS-CoV-2 virus from the Biophysical Society
  • Scientists isolate mini antibodies from a llama from the National Institutes of Health
  • Llama antibodies might fight COVID-19 from the University of Pittsburgh
  • Effects of the nanobodies as discovered by the Rosalind Franklin Institute from the EurekAlert news service
  • WHO coronavirus dashboard (This page contains the latest disease statistics related to the virus.)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 08, 2021:

I hope so too, MG. Thank you for commenting again.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 07, 2021:

You have read some very interesting points. I hope something good comes out of this study.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 07, 2021:

Thank you for such a lovely comment, Manatita. I hope 2021 has started well for you and that it brings you some happy times.

Based on what I've read, the llamas are treated well. I hope that's not a misconception.

manatita44 from london on January 07, 2021:

A very thorough and invaluable article. Perhaps one of your best ones yet, if only because it's such a topical subject. Lots of interesting info and it is true that nature supplies us with all we need. After all, it is giving us Covid-19, so it has an antidote, rather like we see in the Chinese movies.

A very enjoyable read Linda C and one filled with hope in this time of massive challenges. I rather enjoyed the video and the biology sessions too. Just brilliant!! Much Love.

P.S Hopefully, they will treat the Llamas with Love.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 06, 2021:

Hi, Liza. Yes, I hope the continuous research of scientists will help us during this pandemic and others that arise. I appreciate your comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 06, 2021:

I think they are fascinating animals, too. Thank you for the comment, Ankita.

Liza from USA on January 06, 2021:

I remember when I was a kid, I got mistaken between a llama with a camel. I think the resemblance between these two animals is uncanny. However, reading your article makes me realize how important to know about this beautiful animal. I hope the continuous and non-stop research from scientists across the world will find a cure and already so far giving us all hope! Thank you for your thorough article, Linda.

Ankita B on January 05, 2021:

This was very interesting. Llamas are truly fascinating animals. Thank you for sharing this informative article.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, MG. Thanks for the visit. I read a comment from one researcher saying that they think pandemics are going to become more common. I hope that's not the case, but I think we need as many strategies as possible to save lives.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on January 05, 2021:

Very informative article but I have a feeling that mankind has always faced pandemics and dealt with them and I hope this will end also.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Thanks for the visit, Nithya. I hope the research lives up to its promise. It could be very important.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, Peggy. Yes, the research could be very important. I hope the nanobodies are effective in humans and that the research advances quickly.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

I envy you, Bill. I'd love to be able to visit llamas regularly. Happy New Year to you as well!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, Miebakagh. Yes, I think we need as many ways as possible to deal with organisms that cause pandemics.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, Mary. I think it's encouraging news as well. The more ways we have to attack harmful viruses, the better.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Thanks, Pamela. I always appreciate your visits and comments.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, Fran. Yes, some scientists do very useful work with respect to our health. I'm hoping that the llama antibodies are very useful.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

I appreciate your visit and comment, Mel. I hope you enjoy life in Colorado and have a great year.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, John. The antibodies do sound promising. I hope they are approved as soon as possible.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, Audrey. I love the llamas that I've met. They are very interesting animals.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Thank you for the comment, Umesh.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, Chitrangada. I'm hoping the discoveries will be very useful. We need help with some of the viruses that affect us.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Hi, gyanendra. I appreciate your visit. Scientists make some very interesting discoveries!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Thank you very much for the comment, Bill. It is a fascinating topic. Happy New Year to you as well!

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 05, 2021:

The immune system of llamas is promising for future treatments of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Thank you for sharing this interesting and informative article.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 05, 2021:

Hi Linda,

This research about the nanobodies of llamas could not come at a better time! The results of the institutions studying this sound really promising. I hope that the human trials, when administered, bear the same results as in the lab experiments. Being able to administer the potential treatment via nasal spray would also be nice.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on January 05, 2021:

My stepson has a couple llamas on his goat farm. I've spent quite a bit of time with them, and I think they are magnificent creatures . . . as long as they don't spit at me. lol Great article! I love hearing about this research.

Thank you and Happy New Year, Linda!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on January 05, 2021:

Hi Linda, this is very welcome news. Although antivius vaccines were now availalable, we still need a naural-like antibodies like the Iliama nanobodies. Our scientific researcher were on the right course. Much thanks.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 05, 2021:

Linda, this is very interesting. I knew more about the COVID virus as well. It is very encouraging, too.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on January 05, 2021:

I have not read anything about llamas and the virus until I read your well-written article, Linda. You explained everything so well. I always learn many new things from your articles.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on January 05, 2021:

Alicia, thank you for another informative and noteworthy article. Thank God we have scientists caring about diseases and ways to combat them.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on January 05, 2021:

Only you could come up with the idea of llama antibodies. As usual, you unearthed an interesting, and shall I say, very "novel" idea. Too bad the word novel has taken on such sinister implications, these days.

Sorry I have been absent from commenting on your hubs lately. I was involved in a very difficult long-distance move to Colorado.

Great work.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on January 05, 2021:

A very interesting article, Linda. These antibodies produced by the llamas sounds very promising in future treatment of COVID-19. Thank you for sharing.

Thea Tsayt from Spain on January 05, 2021:

I love llamas!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on January 05, 2021:

Very well researched article. Impressive presentation. Thanks.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on January 04, 2021:

This sounds like a very promising information, towards the treatment or prevention of the coronavirus. I haven't heard about the Llama or it's antibodies. Thank you for sharing this important and valuable information, with references.

As always, an excellent informative article.

gyanendra mocktan from Kathmandu,Nepal on January 04, 2021:

Thank you for updating world of possibility to fight against the corona virus.

Scientists working hard to heal the humanity.

We don't have Llama in our part of the world. However, we have plenty of herbs and spices for healing purposes.

Thank you Linda Crapton for your sharing.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on January 04, 2021:

Absolutely fascinating. Who would have thought it possible that llamas could help in the fight against the Covid virus or any other virus? They are certainly interesting animals. I will never look at a llama in the same way again. Great hub, very educational as always. And a Happy New Year to you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 04, 2021:

Hi, Flourish. I hope the llamas were rewarded, too! Thanks for commenting.

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 04, 2021:

It’s amazing how this wide wonderful world fits together in ways that we can only imagine. This line of research sounds promising. I hope Wally and his friends were rewarded for their contributions to science.

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