Alpacas could help in fight against COVID-19
As scientists around the world scramble to produce a coronavirus vaccine, researchers in Australia are taking a rather unusual route in the race to beat COVID-19 - by using alpacas.
Researchers said the animal's unique immune system could provide the key to a scientific breakthrough because minuscule fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19 flow in their veins.
Academics at Australia's Nuclear science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) have teamed up with the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute to research alpaca antibodies in a bid to create a treatment for the deadly disease.
Professor Michael James, one of the lead scientists at the Australian Synchrotron, said the team behind the trial has employed a method that involves using alpaca nanobodies (small fragments of antibodies) which are the molecules our systems produce in response to an infection.
They will then examine how they interact with the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2.
Prof James said as part of the study, alpacas are first immunised with a fragment of the spike protein - there is no "live virus" entering the alpacas' system.
"This is a protein we've all seen on pictures of the virus: those small spikes that stick out from the surface," he told NCA NewsWire.
"Those spikes connect with our cells and once the virus is able to connect with our cells it's able to start replicating."
He explained that by immunising the alpacas with the spike protein, researchers have been able to isolate nanobodies "which can slot into parts of the COVID virus in order to inhibit its activity".
When we have an immune response to a virus or a bug, our bodies create antibodies.
"If you could isolate the key parts of an antibody that attacks the virus, then you can use those fragments - they are called nanobodies in this case - to bind to the virus and stop it from entering the cell," Prof James said.
He described the cells as the lock and the virus as the key.
"If you can plug up the keyhole you have an effective antiviral treatment," he said.
Nanobodies are so tiny they cannot be seen with conventional microscopes, Prof James said.
Which is why he and a team of researchers are using technology called a synchrotron which uses a technique called protein crystallography to help researchers to identify potential antiviral medicines that could treat COVID-19.
Protein crystallography involves shining a beaming light at the antibodies which are now held inside a crystal in order to study their shape and how the interact with the virus.
Prof James told NCA NewsWire protein crystallography is one of the very few ways to see the structure of delicate and complex biological molecules down to the level of individual atoms.
This technique is used across the world to study health and biological processes, as well as to understand diseases, and to develop new targeted treatments.
However, there's a long way to go.
Scientists are only at the beginning of conducting research which could one day transform alpacas' unique virus-beating antibodies into a treatment for a global pandemic.
"I don't think it will be something (treatment) that is ready this year or even next year," he said.
"The work we are doing at the moment is to understand what's going on at the atomic and molecular levels."
After that there are a whole bunch of clinical studies that need to happen to ensure it works, and that it is safe.
The alpacas are located at a property in Gippsland, Victoria.
Originally published as Alpacas could help in fight against COVID-19