ANSTO and WEHI researchers use Alpacas in the race to fight COVID-19

Australian scientists are using alpacas in the battle against COVID-19, with the animal’s unique immune system proving key to potential COVID breakthroughs.

Researchers from ANSTO and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) are researching alpaca antibodies in the hope of creating COVID-fighting therapies.

WEHI has employed a method that involves using nanobodies which are small fragments of antibodies, the molecules our systems produce in response to an infection.

By immunising alpacas with the spike protein from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers have been able to isolate nanobodies, which are screened for the ability to inhibit the interaction of the spike protein to infect human cells.

The Microfocus Crystallography (MX2) Beamline at ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron uses a technique called protein crystallography to help researchers to identify potential vaccines and anti-viral medicines that could treat COVID-19.

Protein crystallography is one of the very few ways to see the structure of delicate and complex biological molecules down to the level of individual atoms.

This technique is used all over the world to study health and biological processes, as well as to understand diseases, and to develop new targeted medicines that are effective in treating disease.

Researchers are also using this technique to understand how our body’s immune system can fight infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

ANSTO’s Australian Synchrotron Senior Principal Research Scientist, Professor Michael James, said researchers are able to use the Synchrotron to study the structure and function of SARS-CoV2 viral proteins, as well as human proteins that are involved in the entry and replication of the virus within cells.

“Since March, we’ve been operating a COVID-19 Rapid Access program to enable Australian and international researchers to solve the atomic structure of SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins,” Prof James said.

“We’re looking at proteins either by themselves or bound to other biological molecules or anti-viral drugs that can help fight the virus or prevent its spread.

“In this instance, MX2 is being used to determine the structure of these inhibitory nanobodies in complex with the key region of the spike protein to understand the structural mechanism of inhibition.

“These structures will provide invaluable information that will allow further development of antibody therapies against COVID-19.

“Even during Stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne, ANSTO’s dedicated staff continued to operate Australia’s Synchrotron and the COVID-19 Rapid Access program on the MX2 Beamline in a COVID-safe way,” he said.

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham, Joint Head of the Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Division at WEHI, said the research could lead to the development of anti-viral therapies to prevent or treat COVID-19.

“Our nanobody project is part of five complementary antibody platforms that make up the biologics research program, deployed to deliver potent and safe antibody-based therapies against COVID-19,” Tham said.

The biologics research program brings together the expertise of Victorian and Australian academic and industry leaders in infectious diseases and antibody therapeutics, at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, the Doherty Institute, CSL, Affinity Bio, CSIRO, Burnet Institute and Kirby Institute, and is supported by a grant from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), with assistance from the Victorian Government.