Alpaca Helps With COVID-19 Vaccine Development!

In the race to develop a coVID-19 vaccine, scientists have discovered an unexpected source of inspiration – alpacas.

At the heart of Australia’s coVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne, researchers and scientists are studying a rare immunity in alpacas, which, like other animals in the camelidae family, produce two antibodies. Michael James, senior chief scientist at synchrotron Radiation Australia, said the unusual immune response of alpacas has already been used to study other viruses around the world, such as HIV.

“Alpacas and similar animals can actually produce two different types of antibodies,” James said. One is similar to the antibodies that we [humans] make, but these animals can also make what are called ‘nanoantibodies’.” “The researchers are exploring whether novel Coronavirus could be used against such nanoantibodies,” he said.

At a research facility in Gippsland, Australia, researchers at the Eliza Hall Medical Research Institute injected alpacas with a novel Coronavirus small protein that caused the llama to produce a nanoantibody response. “We’ve all seen a picture from a novel Coronavirus with little spikes on the surface called viral spike proteins that help viruses infect human cells,” says Dr. James. “So they took the antibody from the alpaca blood, and then they worked with the nanoantibody, and they also isolated novel Coronavirus to bind the antibody to the viral spike protein.”


The researchers then teamed up with scientists at the Synchrotron Radiation Centre in Melbourne, Australia, to study spike proteins at the atomic level. Dr. James hopes the study will help people better understand how to prevent novel Coronavirus. “If the human cell is the lock, the viral spike protein is the key,” he explains. “The virus USES the spike protein to open the door into the human cell and infect it.” “The nanoantibodies in the alpaca are roughly understood as resinous glue,” he said. “They plug the keyhole, you can’t unlock the key, and the virus can’t get into the cells.”

The Australian Synchrotron Radiation Centre, a technology and innovation centre south-east of Melbourne, is in phase four of a lockdown, with 90 per cent of its staff working remotely. “Our synchrotron Facility in Australia was largely closed, but we were able to continue to work on the novel Coronavirus study,” said Dr. James. “Most of our staff work from home, but we have a dedicated team on site to continue to run the research facilities so that researchers can come and work,” he said.

Despite the challenges posed by containment efforts, Dr. James said they were happy to help control the number of cases. “It feels great to be able to help, but at the same time stay home and not disturb others,” he said.

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