Alpacas help researchers in fight against COVID-19


In the race to find a vaccine against COVID-19, scientists have found an unlikely inspiration — the alpaca.

At the heart of Australia’s coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne, researchers and scientists are examining an immunity curiosity from alpacas that, along with other members of the camelid family, create two types of antibodies.

Senior principal scientist from the Australian Synchrotron Michael James said the alpaca’s unusual immune response had already been used in research for other viruses, such as HIV, around the world.

“Alpacas and animals like them actually create two different types of antibodies. One is similar to the type we [humans] make, but they also create these things called nanobodies,” Dr James said.

“It’s these nanobodies the researchers are seeking to use to see if we can fight the COVID-19 virus.”

How it works

Researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute are injecting alpacas at a research facility in Gippsland with a small protein of the virus to generate their nanobody response.

“We’ve all seen the pictures of the SARS-COVID virus, the spiky bit on the outside, that’s called the viral spike proteins, they’re the bit that helps the virus infect our cells,” Dr James said.

“So they then collect the antibodies from the blood of the alpaca, and they process the nanobodies and bind them to part of the viral spike protein that they’ve also isolated.”

The researchers then team with scientists at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne to study the proteins at an atomic level.

Dr James hoped the research would lead to a better understanding of how to guard against the virus.

“If our cells are something like a lock, and the viral spike protein is a key, that’s how the virus gets into our cells, by unlocking a path into our cells,” he explained.

“With the nanobody from the alpaca, you can basically think of it as araldite so that it will gum up the lock, so that the key can’t get into the lock, and the virus can’t get into our cells.”

Searching for a vaccine in an outbreak

The Australian Synchrotron, a technology and innovation hub in south-east Melbourne, is currently in stage 4 lockdown, with 90 per cent of staff working remotely.

“Our facility at the Australian Synchrotron is pretty much closed, except we’re able to continue to operate it in order to do COVID research,” Dr James said.

“Most of our staff are working from home, but we have a dedicated team on site continuing to operate the facility to enable researchers to come and do their work.”

Despite the challenges imposed by the restrictions, Dr James said they were happy to help keep case numbers down.

“It’s great to feel useful, but at the same time staying at home to stay out of everyone’s way,” he said.

When will vaccinations be available?

Dr James said much more research needed to be done before a vaccine would be available.

“It’s not this year, and it may not be next year,” he said.

The nanobodies still needed to be understood on a molecular level, whether they were effective and safe before it could be trialled to be an effective drug.

“Because these nanobodies are new, you have to test them very, very rigorously in a laboratory and then in clinical trials before you’re able to use it, and clinical trials often take a year or two to run through,” Dr James said.

“If it’s a drug that’s already approved and on the market, they can short circuit that process between doing the sort of work we’re doing at the moment and getting to a drug that people can use because it’s already been approved by the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration.]”, 13 August 2020
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