Quirks & Quarks

Shark antibodies could be a tool to fight future coronavirus outbreaks

The tiny size of shark antibodies means they can bind to coronaviruses in ways human antibodies can't, and this can bolster their ability to prevent infection

Shark antibodies are so small they bind to coronaviruses in a way that could protect against future variants

Graduate student Kendahl Ott (left) and research technician Abigail Jackson assist in feeding the nurse sharks housed in Prof. Aaron LeBeau's lab at the University of Wisconsin Madison. (Bryce Richter)

We respect sharks for their sharp teeth, but just as powerful are their tiny and extremely robust antibodies. New research has shown they may have potential as a therapeutic for preventing coronaviruses from infecting cells in ways human antibodies cannot.

Shark antibodies are far smaller than human antibodies, and the new work found they can access parts of the coronavirus spike protein by getting into nooks and crannies that are inaccessible to our own antibodies.

Scientists in the U.S. and Scotland did experiments using non-replicating "pseudoviruses" that showed shark antibodies can target several different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 and its distant relative, the MERS coronavirus.

Shark antibodies could have a wide array of medical applications beyond fighting infectious diseases, including targeting and delivering deadly payloads to cancer cells. (Bryce Richter)

Aaron LeBeau, an associate professor from the University of Wisconsin Madison, said that even though they didn't test against the Omicron variant, their modelling showed they would still be highly effective.

LeBeau told Quirks & Quarks' host Bob McDonald that the antibodies seemed to target parts of the virus common to many coronaviruses, and so they should be effective against future variants as well.

There's still a large amount of work to do to see how these shark antibodies would fare in live animals and perhaps eventually in humans, so it's unlikely we'll reap the benefits of this potential therapeutic in this pandemic.


Produced and written by Sonya Buyting. Click on the link above to listen to the interview with Prof. Aaron LeBeau.

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