Oxford researchers find Llama antibodies have “significant potential” as potent Covid-19 treatment

A small blood sample was taken from the llama and the researchers were able to purify four nanobodies capable of binding to the Covid-19 virus. Credit: PA Images

A unique type of tiny antibody produced by llamas could provide a new frontline treatment against Covid-19 that can be taken by patients as a simple nasal spray. Research led by scientists at the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford has shown that nanobodies – a smaller, simple form of antibody generated by llamas and camels – can effectively target the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. They found that short chains of the molecules, which can be produced in large quantities in the laboratory, significantly reduced signs of the Covid-19 disease when administered to infected animals. The nanobodies, which bind tightly to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, neutralising it in cell culture, could provide a cheaper and easier to use alternative to human antibodies taken from patients who have recovered from Covid-19.

Human antibodies have been a key treatment for serious cases during the pandemic, but typically need to be administered through a jab in hospital.

Public Health England has described the research as having “significant potential for both the prevention and treatment of Covid-19”, adding that the nanobodies “are among the most effective SARS-CoV-2 neutralising agents we have ever tested.” “Nanobodies have a number of advantages over human antibodies,” said Professor Ray Owens, head of protein production at the Rosalind Franklin Institute and lead author of the research.

“They are cheaper to produce and can be delivered directly to the airways through a nebuliser or nasal spray, so can be self-administered at home rather than needing an injection. This could have benefits in terms of ease of use by patients but it also gets the treatment directly to the site of infection in the respiratory tract.”

Researchers at the Rosalind Franklin Institute (pre-Covid). Credit: ITV News Meridian

The research team, which included scientists at the University of Liverpool, University of Oxford and Public Health England, now hope to obtain funding so they can conduct further research needed to prepare for clinical studies in humans. Prof Miles Carroll, Deputy Director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England (PHE), said: “Although this research is still at an early stage, it opens up significant possibilities for the use of effective nanobody treatments for COVID-19." “These are among the most effective SARS-CoV-2 neutralising agents we have ever tested at PHE. We believe the unique structure and strength of the nanobodies contribute to their significant potential for both the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 and look forward to working collaboratively to progress this work into clinical studies.” Dr Andrew Bourne, Director of Partnerships at EPSRC, said: “Utilising the unique properties of llamas’ nanobodies, this research could lead to an important new form of treatment for Covid-19 that is cheaper to produce and easier to administer.

You can read the full research paper on the study here.