Belgian researchers at the University of Ghent have claimed to have discovered that a small antibody produced by llamas is proving effective in blocking the new coronavirus, claiming “a very important advance”, on the way to antiviral treatment.
It is not the first time that animals of the camelid family (dromedary, llama, alpaca) are used in medical research in Belgium and allow progress towards new treatments, explained Professor Xavier Saelens to AFP. , from the Flemish Biotechnology Institute (VIB, Vlaams Instituut voor Biotechnologie).
“There already exists on the market a drug which comes from the antibodies of a llama”, he said, citing Caplacizumab, a treatment for a rare disease of blood clotting, thrombocytopenic thrombotic purpura purpura (acquired PTT).
The discovery which this time concerns the new coronavirus was made by two teams led by Belgian professors Xavier Saelens and Nico Callewaert, in collaboration with an American laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin, led by Pr Jason McLellan. Their study was published in the American journal Cell.
The llama’s immune system neutralizes the effects of Covid-19
By inoculating a llama guinea pig with the so-called protein “peak” present on the surface of this virus, they found that the animal succeeded in producing an antibody capable of playing the role of shield and “neutralize” the effects of the virus.
“The llama has developed an immune response against this protein”, said Dorien De Vlieger, a VIB researcher.
“Our objective is to produce an antiviral treatment which would consist in directly administering these antibodies to patients” suffering from the new coronavirus, she added, adding that she expects initial experiments on humans “by the end of the year“.
Unlike a vaccine, causing the patient to produce the antibodies himself which can take time, according to the researcher, this treatment could be beneficial more quickly and concern people who are already sick.
Initially researched for other SRARS viruses
This Belgian laboratory offers one of the many examples of medical research devoted to the fight against the new coronavirus around the world.
This is academic research, independent of the pharmaceutical industry. Twenty thesis students are currently working exclusively on the VIB, hosted by the University of Ghent.
Researchers from Ghent and Austin in the United States began their collaboration in 2016, at the time to find a response to other viruses of the SRARS type.
The onset of the new global pandemic has had the effect of relaunching their work.
According to them, the small antibody derived from the llama that they were able to isolate “binds to much of SARS-CoV-2” (the new coronavirus, editor’s note), preventing it from “entering the host cells” of the virus.
“This is a very important step forward in the fight against the Covid-19”, said Professor Saelens.
As for the lama at the heart of the research program, a four-year-old female named Winter, her location in Belgium is kept secret.
“We fear animal rights activists, but we must also protect them as much as possible from stress”, argued Dorien De Vlieger.
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