Skip to main content
Move the World.
nanobodies

Lead Image © Pavel Svoboda / Adobe Stock

If you needed a particularly cute reason to be optimistic about COVID-19, the camelids have you covered. Camels, alpacas, llamas — even the lesser-known-but-even-cuter vicuñas — all produce nanobodies, tiny antibodies that are incredibly good at mucking up viruses. 

Early in the pandemic, llamas captured all the headlines, gracing everything from Smithsonian to WIRED. Building on the llama antibodies, a team at Oxford created two new SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing nanobodies.

Now, a research team at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet has found another potentially COVID-fighting nanobody in the alpaca.

As their name suggests, nanobodies are related to antibodies, blood proteins created by the immune system to combat specific invaders. As their name also suggests, nanobodies are smaller than antibodies.

"Nanobodies are smaller, more stable types of antibody taken from the immune systems of camelid species -- such as llamas, alpacas and camels," University of Reading professor Gary Stephens said in a university press release about llama nanobodies. 

Despite their size, nanobodies maintain their pit bull mentality when it comes to pathogens, the Karolinska team wrote in Nature Communications, while being "far easier to clone, express, and manipulate" than typical antibodies. They grow eagerly and are fairly hardy, making them cost effective to manufacture at scale. 

Nanobodies can also be "humanized" using techniques already known, and they have proven effective against other respiratory infections in the past.

Step Off, Llamas: It's Alpaca Time

So what's the new wooly word, then? Scientists at Sweden's Karolinska Institutet have identified another nanobody with the potential to stop SARS-CoV-2 from infecting human cells — but this time, it's the alpaca's chance to shine.

Despite their small size, nanobodies maintain their pit bull mentality when it comes to pathogens.

The research began in February, The Independent reports. An alpaca named Tyson was injected with SARS-CoV-2's infamous spike protein, and by June, Karolinska researchers had isolated nanobodies from Tyson's blood.

Dubbed Ty1, the alpaca nanobodies directly prevent the coronavirus from attaching to its binding site on the human cell — from whence it would usually cleave the cell open and begin its replication cycle. Ty1 gloms on to the part of the spike protein that attaches to ACE2, the virus's favorite target on our cells. It does so without impacting other target sites, the researchers note. 

The hope is that the Andean champion's nanobodies will prove one more new seed for coronavirus antiviral medications.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected]

Up Next

If you want to understand a problem, talk to the people working on solutions. Join us as we meet the people and explore the ideas on the frontlines of an unprecedented global response.

Coronavirus
Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine Produces More Antibodies Than the Disease Itself
Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine
Coronavirus
Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine Produces More Antibodies Than the Disease Itself
Early data shows Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine produces immunity as good as, or better than, recovery from the virus.

Early data shows Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine produces immunity as good as, or better than, recovery from the virus.

Public Health
New Coronavirus Vaccine Candidate Creates Antibodies in Mice
New Coronavirus Vaccine
Public Health
New Coronavirus Vaccine Candidate Creates Antibodies in Mice
A new coronavirus vaccine candidate that delivers inoculation via a microneedle patch has shown promise in a peer-reviewed mouse study.

A new coronavirus vaccine candidate that delivers inoculation via a microneedle patch has shown promise in a peer-reviewed mouse study.

Coronavirus
Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine Produces More Antibodies Than Infection
Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine
Coronavirus
Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine Produces More Antibodies Than Infection
Two shots of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine produces more antibodies than a coronavirus infection, according to Phase 1 preliminary data.

Two shots of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine produces more antibodies than a coronavirus infection, according to Phase 1 preliminary data.

Coronavirus
New Air Filter for COVID-19 Could Lower Risk of Being Indoors
Air Filter for COVID-19
Coronavirus
New Air Filter for COVID-19 Could Lower Risk of Being Indoors
A new air filter for COVID-19 heats up to nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the coronavirus in aerosols.

A new air filter for COVID-19 heats up to nearly 400 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the coronavirus in aerosols.

Coronavirus
A Guide to Flying During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Flying During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Coronavirus
A Guide to Flying During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Flying during the coronavirus pandemic can increase your infection risk, but if you can't avoid it, here’s how to do so as safely as possible.

Flying during the coronavirus pandemic can increase your infection risk, but if you can't avoid it, here’s how to do so as safely as possible.

Public Health
Singapore to Give All Residents Wearables for Contact Tracing
Contact Tracing
Public Health
Singapore to Give All Residents Wearables for Contact Tracing
Singapore is testing the ability of wearables for contact tracing to prevent an increase in coronavirus infections as it lifts lockdown restrictions.

Singapore is testing the ability of wearables for contact tracing to prevent an increase in coronavirus infections as it lifts lockdown restrictions.

Sonification
Why Scientists Are Turning the Coronavirus’ Structure Into Music
Coronavirus Structure
Sonification
Why Scientists Are Turning the Coronavirus’ Structure Into Music
MIT scientists have translated a key part of the coronavirus’ structure into music — and the song could help researchers find a way to stop the virus.

MIT scientists have translated a key part of the coronavirus’ structure into music — and the song could help researchers find a way to stop the virus.

Public Health
Private Sector Stepping Up to Combat COVID-19
Private Sector Stepping Up to Combat COVID-19
Public Health
Private Sector Stepping Up to Combat COVID-19
Cosmetics companies and distilleries are making hand sanitizer and the UK asks manufacturers to make ventilators as the private sector responds to the pandemic.

Cosmetics companies and distilleries are making hand sanitizer and the UK asks manufacturers to make ventilators as the private sector responds to the pandemic.