A Llama Could Save Us From the Coronavirus

Animals all over are helping scientists make antibodies to help fight human disease. Yes, some of them are cute.

Jillian Kramer
Elemental
Published in
4 min readJun 18, 2020

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Illustrations: Sophi Gullbrants

A llama named Winter recently made headlines when scientists announced her small-but-mighty antibodies could fight the novel coronavirus. Think of it: A llama could save us from Covid-19.

Scientists have looked at “unusual” animal antibodies — including those of camelids, the family to which llamas belong — for decades to see how they might be harnessed for human treatments. In fact, the antibodies of horses, chickens, and even sharks could fight other, non-Covid-19 human afflictions.

In working with Winter, Xavier Saelens, PhD, a molecular virologist at Ghent University in Belgium, followed in the footsteps of other Belgian scientists who, in 1993, published their discoveries on llamas’ antibodies: Unlike human antibodies, which are made of both heavy and light chains of connected proteins, llamas can create antibodies that are composed of only heavy chains, making them smaller and nimbler, better able to bind to various pathogens. In cell tests, the llama antibodies neutralized the virus that causes Covid-19, and researchers are moving toward clinical human trials for a drug that uses the llama-derived antibodies by the end of this year.

Thanks in part to their size, and the accompanying higher volume of blood, horses produce large quantities of antibodies that have demonstrated efficacy against some infectious diseases.

Dozens of other animal antibody-derived treatments, for diseases ranging from lupus to rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis, are currently under development or in clinical trials. Last year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Cablivi, a treatment derived from both llama and camel antibodies for a rare blood disorder called acquired thrombocytopenic purpura.

Here’s how the animal antibody research works: Animals are used as agents to create the type of antibodies scientists might want. For example, injecting an animal with a protein from human cancer will cause the animal’s immune system to…

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Jillian Kramer
Elemental

Jillian Kramer is a journalist whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Travel + Leisure, and more.