University of Reading: Arla The Llama Helping COVID-19 Drug Discovery

A University of Reading llama called Arla is helping scientists in the race to find treatments for Covid-19.

Arla is part of a herd of llamas in Reading that have been providing very small antibodies which can be used in a clinical environment to understand how potential drugs might bind to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

The llamas are looked after by expert handlers working at the University of Reading, and blood taken from Arla is send to the Francis Crick Institute where it is studied to find ways of understand levels of immunity in humans.

Professor Gary Stephens from the School of Pharmacy at the University of Reading said:

“Nanobody technology is one of the most exciting new developments in medical research, and llamas play a crucial role in these studies as they are one of the very animals from which nanobodies can be produced.

“We’re pleased that the University of Reading is using its combined expertise in drug research and animal husbandry to keep a llama herd, and help the scientific effort to develop a treatment for coronavirus.

“The big benefit of using nanobodies produced by llamas is that they may be able to target the virus more effectively than other types of antibodies and are less prone to be attacked by the human body’s natural defences.”

How Arla is helping the Crick

The team from the Crick have developed nanobodies from llamas which are being used across many COVID-19 research projects.

Once researchers at the Crick had produced the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in the lab, they visited the University of Reading llama herd and had our local llama experts inject Arla with the isolated protein. Over two months, as Arla continued to play in the fields, its immune systems mounted an antibody response to the spike protein, just like our own bodies do after vaccination. Our researchers then came back to take a small blood sample containing these valuable antibodies.

Back in the lab, researchers isolated lymphocytes, immune cells responsible for antibody production, from the blood sample. They then extracted genetic material and amplified the sections of DNA that code for nanobodies. Left with literally millions of potential nanobodies, the team then separated out nanobodies which specifically bound to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein using phage display technology.

Now, the Crick has a suite of over 100 nanobodies for coronavirus research. These can be manufactured at scale in just a couple of days for larger studies and have already proved beneficial in our pandemic response.

Svend Kjaer, deputy head of structural biology at the Francis Crick Institute, said:

“Using just a small blood donation from Arla, we’ve created a biological toolkit for studying SARS-CoV-2. We’ve been able to make nanobodies that neutralise different virus variants and better understand the mechanisms of infection and disease. These tools are being used by scientists throughout the Crick on a wide variety of projects from determining immunity to new variants to capturing changes in the virus structure during infection.”

As well as the work with the Crick, Arla’s herdmate Fifi has also been helping scientists at the Rosalind Franklin Institute to use nanobodies which also stick to the spike protein of the coronavirus.

Every injection or blood sample is considered one animal research ‘procedure’, regulated by a government licence and subject to inspection by Home Office expert officials, and is counted in the University’s annual reported animal research statistics. Such procedures are considered ‘mild’ on a scale of severity to the animal.