LIMA – A leading global expert on llamas said he is surprised and very interested to learn that antibodies from that South American highland species may help scientists in their efforts to combat the virus that causes COVID-19.
According to Dr. Teodosio Huanca, that possible benefit is in addition to the animal’s promise as a potential food source for undernourished human populations in the high Andes.
Speaking to EFE at the Illpa Experimental Agricultural Station, located in the Andean highlands of the southeastern Peruvian province of Puno, a habitat the llama shares with three other related species: the alpaca, the guanaco and the vicuña, Huanca said it has long been known that antibodies from that domesticated camelid species (Lama glama) have characteristics that allow them to effectively inhibit some viruses.
But the researcher, who has spent 35 years studying these animals, said he was particularly interested to learn that the smaller of the two antibodies llamas produce in response to a microbial threat have properties that enable them to neutralize SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
That finding came from a study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, the National Institutes of Health and Belgium’s Ghent University and published this week in the scientific journal Cell.
In the study, the researchers observed that a llama that had been injected with spike proteins from two earlier coronaviruses (SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV) over a period of around six weeks was protected from those proteins due to the action of its smaller type of antibody.
Inspired by that finding, the team used copies of that antibody unique to llamas to engineer a new antibody known as VHH-72Fc that binds tightly to the novel coronavirus and blocks it from infecting cells in culture.
If that engineered antibody proves effective in human trials, it could lead to a treatment that helps reduce the clinical impact in patients suffering from COVID-19.
Far removed from the world of science, hundreds of thousands of llamas live out tranquil lives in the inhospitable Andean highlands while also serving as subjects of different studies.
“It’s an animal that lives on grass of low nutritional value, requires little water, breeds freely, is quite strong, robust, is very resistant to diseases and has a low mortality rate compared, for example, with the alpaca. It does, however, have a low reproduction rate,” Gustavo Gutierrez, a researcher at Peru’s National Agrarian University, told EFE.
But those virtues have not prevented the number of llamas to fall sharply with respect to alpacas, which are less resistant but produce a natural fiber coveted by the textile industry.
Huanca, however, says it is a mistake not to make use of an animal that can survive at heights of more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level and, despite eating grass unwanted by other animals, “produces meat that is 23% lean protein and that requires little water.”
“The llama is the animal of the future. It eats grass that sheep and beef cattle don’t want, and when certain technology is applied to its breeding can reach a weight of 200 kilograms (440 pounds). A breeding development (program) would guarantee food security” in a high Andes region lashed by malnutrition, the expert said.
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, an estimated 23 million llamas lived in the Andean region and were used – as they still are today – as important pack animals. But their numbers subsequently fell and they started to be bred in smaller numbers because of their high price relative to other food sources.
“But now prices are rising and the llama is becoming attractive once again,” Huanca said, adding that work still needs to be done in the areas of promotion and breeding to make it more competitive.