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Alpacas helping UK researchers to combat COVID-19

Posted at 6:40 PM, Jun 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-22 14:45:56-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — A team at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine 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 a UK 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 River Hill Ranch near Richmond 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,” said 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, but 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 UK. Big Boy, Blue Eyes and Emperor have contributed to the university’s nanobody research for more than three years. In those years, 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.