A cheap and easy-to use nasal spray to prevent Covid-19 could be created using antibodies from a llama named Fifi.
Scientists have known for a while that the adorable animals' immune system is far more effective at fighting the virus than a human’s.
The llamas’ immune system has powerful chemical bonds that bind tightly to the spike protein – effectively neutralising it.
But British scientists have now isolated these chemicals, known as 'nanobodies' due to their small size, from the immune system of a single llama named Fifi.
It opens the door to treating the disease with an inexpensive and simple asthma style inhaler or nasal spray.
Human antibodies have been a key therapy for serious cases during the pandemic, but administering them can only done under hospital conditions.
Lead author Professor Ray Owens, of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Didcot, Oxfordshire, explains: "Nanobodies have a number of advantages over human antibodies.
"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."
Public Health England (PHE) said the breakthrough has "significant potential for both the prevention and treatment of Covid-19."
The nanobodies "are among the most effective SARS-CoV-2 neutralising agents we have ever tested.”
Institute director Prof James Naismith, who helped lead the project, said: "Because we can see every atom of the nanobody bound to the spike, we understand what makes these agents so special."
The results in Nature Communications are the first step towards developing a new type of treatment.
It could prove invaluable in combating the pandemic, said Prof Naismith.
He explained: "While vaccines have proven extraordinarily successful, not everyone responds to vaccination and immunity can wane in individuals at different times.
"Having medications that can treat the virus is still going to be very important, particularly as not all of the world is being vaccinated at the same speed and there remains a risk of new variants capable of bypassing vaccine immunity emerging."
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If successful and approved, nanobodies will be an important treatment around the world.
They are easier to produce than human antibodies and don't need to be stored in cold storage facilities, said Prof Naismith.
Professor Owens said that the work does with llamas could not only put an end to this pandemic, but future outbreaks too.
"When a new virus emerges in the future, the generic technology we have developed could respond to that, which would be important in terms of producing new treatments as quickly as possible.”
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