have you heard the one about the llama?

A COVID-19 research breakthrough out of a Texas university comes from unlikely source

COVID-19 antibody research coming out of the University of Texas stars an unlikely participant: A llama named Winter. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

In the race to find a treatment for the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have announced a potential breakthrough — thanks to a llama.

Scientists from Texas' flagship university who have been collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium identified an antibody treatment that could potentially neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19.

The researchers detail their work in the May 5 edition of Cell, a scientific journal.

"This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author of the paper, in a release. (FYI, SARS-CoV-2 is referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.)

Using a Belgian llama named Winter, scientists were able to identify two antibodies the animal produces when it comes into contact with a foreign body (such as the coronavirus). The first is similar to a human antibody and the second is much smaller, about one-quarter of the size of the other.

This is Winter. Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Researchers were able to link two copies of this special llama antibody to create a new antibody. This new antibody binds tightly to a key protein on the coronavirus germ that causes COVID-19 and could possible be nebulized and put into an inhaler.

"That makes them potentially really interesting as a drug for a respiratory pathogen because you're delivering it right to the site of infection," said Daniel Wrapp, a UT graduate student in McLellan's lab and co-first author of the paper.

Unlike vaccines, which can take up to two months to take effect, antibody treatment can be used in more vulnerable populations as a way to fight off the virus.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," McLellan said. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease."

From here, research turns to preclinical studies, using hamsters and primates for testing. If successful, they will move onto humans.

If you're wondering just how a group of researchers living in different parts of the globe were able to make this discovery seemingly overnight, that's because they've actually been working on it since 2016, when Winter was just 9 months old.

The experiment began as a way to develop vaccinations for two earlier versions of the coronavirus: SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Their years of research allowed the scientists to pivot in recent months to isolating the protein in COVID-19.

As for Winter, she's now 4 years old and still lives with about 130 llamas on a farm in Belgium, likely unaware of her contribution to potentially altering the course of COVID-19 forever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Adrianne Stone has joined Capital Factory's Houston operations as the company prioritizes digital startup interaction. Photo courtesy of Capital Factory

For years, Capital Factory has existed to promote innovation and grow startups across Texas and has expanded from its headquarters in Austin to Dallas, Houston, and beyond. In light of COVID-19, the organization has pivoted to make sure it can work with startups remotely and online.

"I think Capital Factory has successfully embraced virtual first," says Bryan Chambers, vice president of the accelerator and fund at Capital Factory. "I think it's gone well and it feels like we're just hitting our stride."

Chambers admits that the onset of the coronavirus had a great effect on Capital Factory — SXSW being canceled did its damage on the organization, which has a huge presence every year. However, cross-state startup collaboration is the driving force behind Capital Factory's Texas Manifesto.

"We're one big state, and we're one big startup ecosystem," Chambers says. "The resources across Dallas, Houston, Austin, North Texas, and San Antonio are available for everybody. Candidly, COVID aligns with that. There's no better time — COVID is erasing the boundaries in a virtual world."

In addition to navigating the transition to virtual operations, Capital Factory has also introduced its newest Houston staff member, as Adrianne Stone has started this week as venture associate for the organization. Stone received her Ph.D in Translational Biology and Molecular Medicine from Baylor College of Medicine before heading out to the West Coast and working at 23andme. She brings both her experience with health tech and Silicon Valley to her position.

"The mindset in Silicon Valley is different from how it is here in Texas — in good ways and bad ways. It was interesting to be exposed to a very potent startup vibe," Stone tells InnovationMap. "I'm looking forward to being able to meet all the cool companies, founders, and investors we have here in the Houston area."

Stone replaces Brittany Barreto, who helped in coordinating her replacement and is staying on part-time for the rest of August to help with training and immersion into the ecosystem. Barreto, who is one of the founders of the recently launched startup masterclass Founder's Compass, has also introduced a new brand called Femtech Focus, that includes a podcast where she talks to innovators in the women's health and wellness space.

"I'm ready to get back into the founder's saddle," Barreto says, adding that there's more to come for Femtech Focus.

Throughout her tenure, Barreto has overseen Capital Factory's Houston portfolio companies — both identifying potential investment opportunities and connecting startups to resources and mentors. She passes the torch to her former BCM classmate, and says she's excited to do so to a fellow Ph.D.

"The last year and a half, I've working really hard on laying this foundation. I don't want all that hard work to go away, so I cared a lot about who was going to take my position," she says. "I wanted to make sure that all my founders had someone who cared about them as much as I do."

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