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Alpacas helping researchers to combat COVID-19

Alpacas helping researchers to combat COVID-19
Posted at 1:35 PM, Jun 22, 2020

A team at the University of Kentucky is researching a possible treatment for COVID-19 and key helpers are three alpacas; Big Boy, Blue Eyes and Emperor.

“It’s a powerful technology that we have at UK (University of Kentucky) and it’s something that hopefully we can develop some therapeutics with,” said Wally Whiteheart, a professor in the Department of Molecular & Cellular Biochemistry.

Alpacas, along with llamas and camels, make a special kind of antibody called a nanobody. Nanobodies can be useful in cancer research and for other diseases. Researchers, led by Whiteheart and fellow professor Lou Hersh, are working with a nearby ranch to see what impact alpacas could have on COVID-19.

“We, in a sense vaccinate them, and this case with viral proteins, and we make nanobodies to those viral proteins,” explained Whiteheart. “We can then go and purify and identify the nanobodies that bind to the virus and then test them to see if they can inhibit viral infection.”

Making the nanobodies is just the first step. The team will see which, if any, can block virus infection and those candidates could move on to clinical trials.

There’s still a lot of research and testing to go, and also still a lot of hope.

“The cool thing which we’re exploring now is the fact that you might be able to use them as a nasal spray and this actually gets them to the place where the virus is affecting lung tissue,” said Whiteheart.

This isn’t the first time the trio of alpacas has helped medical research. Big Boy, Blue Eyes and Emperor have contributed to the university’s nanobody research for more than three years. In that time, they have helped researchers generate more than 50 nanobodies to target proteins involved in a variety of human diseases including cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders.

This story was originally reported by Alex Valverde on