Covid-19 Science

Llama’s COVID-19 treatment enters trials in Belgium

A Belgian biomedical start-up has launched clinical trials to determine whether antibodies derived from a llama could play a part in the fight against COVID-19.

Llamas and other members of the camel family are unique among mammals in producing smaller versions of conventional antibodies that can be combined to serve different purposes at a low cost.

“It’s a bit like ‘Lego’ protein that you can (combine) much more easily than with other antibodies” said researcher Nico Callewaert, in reference to the Danish construction game.

His colleague Xavier Saelens, also working for Belgium’s VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology, added the small size of the antibodies made them more stable, easier to reproduce and more versatile.

The unique properties of members of the camel family were discovered almost by chance by the VUB University in Brussels some 30 years ago.

The center’s spin-off ExeVir began a trial last week in healthy volunteers, having already starting giving it to hospitalised patients.

“The first goal is to see whether it’s working in patients, whether it does the job like we see it when doing it on mice and hamsters,” Saelens told Reuters.

ExeVir’s Chief Medical Officer Dominique Tersago said treatments derived from tiny antibodies of a Belgium-based llama called Winter could protect those whose immune systems are compromised or shorten hospital stays for those infected.

She added data was encouraging on its ability to counter more infectious variants, given the antibody binds to a very specific part of the virus’s spike.

ExeVir would not be the first user of such small “nanobodies”. France’s Sanofi paid 3.9 billion euros to buy Ghent-based medical company Ablynx in 2018, while VIB spin-off Biotalys, which offers biological alternatives to chemical pesticides, listed on the stock exchange in June.

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