‘Nanobodies’ could hold the solution to new COVID-19 therapies

‘Nanobodies’ could hold the solution to new COVID-19 therapies

Illuminate newsletter index page, summer-2020-21
December 2020

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham
Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham is leading a collaborative
project with Australian research organisations to develop new
antibody-based therapies for COVID-19.

As we continue to navigate our way through COVID-19, WEHI researchers are working to find the answers needed to fight this disease and protect our community.

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham is leading a research team studying alpacas’ immune defences to find new antibody-based therapies for COVID-19.

“The key to our work is nanobodies – extremely small antibodies that are naturally produced by alpacas’ immune systems in response to infection,” Associate Professor Tham said.

Biologics - an alternative to vaccines

“By studying nanobodies that target the coronavirus ‘spike’ protein, we are edging closer to new antibody-based ‘biologics’ therapies to treat COVID-19.”

While vaccines generate an immune response in humans to produce antibodies, antibody-based therapies or ‘biologics’ directly deliver the most effective antibodies, providing immediate protection.

Working together for new treatments

The COVID-19 biologics program is a consortium-led effort that brings together the expertise of Australian academic and industry leaders at WEHI, the Doherty Institute, CSLAffinity Bio, CSIRO, the Burnet Institute and the Kirby Institute.

To generate nanobodies against SARS-CoV-2, a group of alpacas in regional Victoria have been immunised with a synthetic part of the SARS-CoV-2 ‘spike’ protein.

“The synthetic ‘spike’ protein is not infectious and does not cause the alpacas to develop disease – but it allows the alpacas to develop nanobodies that we can safely study in the lab,” Associate Professor Tham said.

“We study these nanobodies in great detail, find out which nanobodies, or combination of nanobodies, are the most effective, and use this information to develop antibody-based therapies that can be safely used in humans."

"We believe that biologics research will play a crucial role in the fight against COVID-19.”

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Super Content: 
Visualisation of SARS-CoV-2

Our researchers are working towards better approaches to diagnose, treat and prevent the spread of coronaviruses, both to address the current COVID-19 global outbreak as well as in preparedness for likely future coronaviral disease outbreaks.

Visualisation of SARS-CoV-2

WEHI researchers are using extremely small antibodies that occur naturally in alpacas – called nanobodies – to develop biologics that could prevent the COVID-19 coronavirus from binding to human cells – the first step in the virus infection cycle.

Animation still showing cells changing

Our biomedical animation team explains the discoveries made by scientists through 3D animation.