The hunt for an effective treatment for COVID-19 has led one team of researchers to find an improbable ally for their work: a llama named Winter (photo). The team -- from The University of Texas at Austin, the National Institutes of Health, and Ghent University in Belgium -- reports their findings about a potential avenue for a coronavirus treatment involving llamas in an article to be published online on May 5, 2020 in Cell. The paper is currently available online as a "pre-proof," meaning it is peer-reviewed but undergoing final formatting. The pre-print was posted in the bioRxiv portal on March 28, 2020. The current title of the article is “Structural Basis for Potent Neutralization of Betacoronaviruses by Single-domain Camelid Antibodies.” The researchers linked two copies of a special kind of antibody produced by llamas to create a new antibody that binds tightly to a key protein on the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This protein, called the spike protein, allows the virus to break into host cells. Initial tests indicate that the antibody blocks viruses that display this spike protein from infecting cells in culture. "This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," said Jason McLellan, PhD, Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author, referring to the virus that causes COVID-19. The team is now preparing to conduct preclinical studies in animals such as hamsters or nonhuman primates, with the hopes of next testing in humans. The goal is to develop a treatment that would help people soon after infection with the virus. "Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," Dr. McLellan said. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected.
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