Researchers discovered antibodies from an unusual animal that could help scientists develop a treatment against coronavirus. According to their study, the antibodies produced can bind to proteins found on the surface of SARS, a variety of the existing coronavirus.

By engineering two copies of the antibody, it binds more effectively to the spike proteins of the virus and essentially neutralizes them. The team, led by the University of Texas at Austin, said that the goal is to provide immediate treatment to people after becoming infected. Presently, the United States has more than 1 million confirmed cases of the virus and 60,000 deaths.

The antibodies from Winter

Co-senior author Dr. Jason McLellan, an associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin, said in a press release that the first known antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2 are the antibodies found in the blood samples of the llama.

The llama's name is Winter. She was four years old and lived on a farm in the countryside of Belgium. It was four years ago when her part on the experiment on the two other types of coronavirus was revealed.

The researchers were studying the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2016 when Winter was just about nine months old. She was injected stabilized spike proteins from the two viruses for over six weeks, just like how humans are immunized against a specific illness.

A blood sample of Winter revealed that she had developed antibodies that bound to each version of the spike protein. One antibody, in particular, called the VHH-72, tightly bound to spike proteins found on the surface of the SARS virus and prevented it from infecting cells.

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When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, the researchers immediately tested its antibody and discovered that it also binds to the spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2, albeit weakly.  Fortunately, using some engineering techniques which involves linking two copies of VHH-72, it binds more effectively and essentially neutralized the spike proteins.

The team is hoping to conduct preclinical trials soon in animals like hamsters or nonhuman primates, such as the monkeys. Their paper is currently available online pre-proof and will be published in the journal Cell on May 5.

Immediate treatment for COVID-19 patients

The goal of the research is to develop a treatment that would be given to people immediately after becoming infected with COVID-19. McLellan said that to provide infection to a person, they should receive the vaccines a month or two before the disease.

The antibody works by directly giving someone protective antibodies. They should be protected immediately after receiving treatment. Additionally, antibodies can be used to cure someone who is already sick to lessen the severity of the infection.

The people who will most benefit from this research are the elderly as they have weaker immune systems, and also healthcare workers who are at increased risk of exposure to the virus. Especially now that the number of cases is rising, like the U.S., which reported more than 1.05 million confirmed cases of the infection and more than 60,000 deaths.

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