British Columbia

Biotech coalition hopes llama nanobodies hold key to COVID-19 treatment

A coalition of Canadian biotech companies are hoping that nanobodies they’ve raised and sequenced from the blood of a llama immunized to COVID-19 are the key to treating the virus that causes the disease.

Genetic sequences of nanobodies released for free upon pledge to develop treatments for everyone

A sample of blood from Maple, a llama from Burlington, Ont. immunized to COVID-19, has been used to identify nanobodies that could lead to a treatment for the coronavirus. (Tahir Maqbool/Cedarlane )

A coalition of Canadian biotech companies are hoping that fragments of antibodies they've raised and sequenced from the blood of a llama immunized to COVID-19 are the key to treating the virus that causes the disease.

After months of research the Canadian Coalition for COVID-19 says it has published the genetic sequences of 51 of the fragments, called nanobodies, that showed a promising ability to bind to the virus and neutralize it. 

Now, they are providing the data to researchers around the world for free in hopes of driving the development of treatments and tests for the coronavirus.

"The results from the coalition's first tests provide hope for controlling or reducing the severity of the coronavirus in its victims," says Novobind CEO Hamlet Abnousi, who initiated the project. 

While most people recover on their own from mild cases of COVID-19, some may require hospitalization and treatment for their symptoms, though according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control there are still no vaccines or approved medicines for COVID-19.

The ambition of the coalition is that other labs and biotech companies can expand on its research by using the sequences to produce the nanobodies in a lab, then testing them to see if one of these nanobodies is the "golden bullet" to prevent the virus from invading human cells and replicating. 

Nanobodies from Maple the llama

Nanobodies, or fragments of antibodies found in sharks and camelids (such as camels, alpacas and llamas), have often been used by researchers to study viruses because of their unique high binding and stability characteristics.

Not only are llama nanobodies roughly one-tenth the size of human antibodies, making them easier to manipulate and better at binding to some viruses, they are nearly 1,000 times cheaper to produce, according to the coalition.

The llama immunized for this project, otherwise known as Maple, lives in Ontario and was given a viral antigen, or COVID-19 spike RBD protein produced in B.C.

Maple responded by creating antibodies against the virus, then a local team took a small sample of blood in order to retrieve the antibodies.

Scientists at coalition member SignalChem in B.C. have already started making the nanobodies based on Maple's genetic sequences. (SignalChem Lifesciences)

The blood was sent back to B.C. and scientists were able to isolate the genetic sequences of its nanobodies that bound to the viral antigen. 

With the sequences identified, the group says laboratories will now be able to inexpensively reproduce the nanobodies on a mass scale.

Hope for those already sick

They can then be screened for therapeutic potential where neutralizing nanobodies can be identified and even enhanced and then used as a preventative measure or treatment for people with COVID-19.

"I would say the vaccine is the gold standard if we get there, but if you are sick already then you need something to help fight the disease and this is what it would be used for," said Abnousi.

Coalition founder, SignalChem Lifesciences says it has already started to produce the nanobodies at its Richmond, B.C. lab, and will begin performing tests to see how effective they are at neutralizing the virus. 

Equitable patient access

Research teams seeking access to a licence for the sequences will be asked to sign a pledge committing to the coalition's objective to develop treatments and diagnostics for all people regardless of financial means. 

"Typically labs are very protective of their own proprietary work and so we're hoping to get out there and change the message and say we can share," said Abnousi.

Abnousi is hoping that people or countries with fewer resources to deal with the pandemic can benefit from the project.

Vice dean of research at UBC's faculty of medicine, Rob McMaster says the coalition "should be commended for their efforts."

"With the COVID-19 pandemic there is a real time sensitive need for "Open Science" where results are shared immediately across the world to greatly speed up the development of diagnostics and therapeutics."

The Public Health Agency of Canada says innovation and knowledge-sharing are important aspects of the ongoing response to COVID-19.


Cory Correia

Associate Producer and Video Journalist

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