Mini antibodies against COVID-19 isolated from a llama

Researchers have isolated a set of promising, tiny antibodies, also called 'nanobodies,' against SARS-CoV-2 that were produced by a llama named Cormac. Initial results suggest that at least one of them, called NIH-CoVnb-112, can prevent infections and detect virus particles by grabbing hold of SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins. Also, this nanobody appeared to work equally well in either liquid or aerosol form, suggesting it could remain effective after inhalation.



A nanobody is a special type of antibody naturally produced by the immune systems of camelids, a group of animals that includes camels, llamas, and alpacas. On average, these proteins are about a tenth the weight of most human antibodies.


This is because nanobodies isolated in the lab are essentially free-floating versions of the tips of the arms of heavy chain proteins, which form the backbone of a typical Y-shaped human IgG antibody. These tips play a critical role in the immune system's defences by recognizing proteins on viruses, bacteria, and other invaders, also known as antigens.


Because nanobodies are more stable, less expensive to produce, and easier to engineer than typical antibodies, a growing body of researchers has been using them for medical research.


For instance, a few years ago scientists showed that humanized nanobodies may be more effective at treating an autoimmune form of thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, a rare blood disorder, than current therapies.


Since the pandemic broke, several researchers have produced llama nanobodies against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that may be effective at preventing infections. In the current study, the researchers used a slightly different strategy than others to find nanobodies that may work especially well.


How did they do this?


The researchers immunized Cormac five times over 28 days with a purified version of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. After testing hundreds of nanobodies they found that Cormac produced 13 nanobodies that might be strong candidates.


Initial experiments suggested that one candidate, called NIH-CoVnb-112, could work very well. Test tube studies showed that this nanobody bound to the ACE2 receptor 2 to 10 times stronger than nanobodies produced by other labs. Other experiments suggested that the NIH nanobody stuck directly to the ACE2 receptor binding portion of the spike protein.


Then the team showed that the NIH-CoVnB-112 nanobody could be effective at preventing coronavirus infections. To mimic the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the researchers genetically mutated a harmless "pseudovirus" so that it could use the spike protein to infect cells that have human ACE2 receptors. The researchers saw that relatively low levels of the NIH-CoVnb-112 nanobodies prevented the pseudovirus from infecting these cells in Petri-dishes.


Importantly, the researchers showed that the nanobody was equally effective in preventing the infections in Petri-dishes when it was sprayed through the kind of nebulizer, or inhaler, often used to help treat patients with asthma.


Source: NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke