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Could three Alpacas in Kentucky help fight Coronavirus?

Photo by Ben Corwin, Research Communications

Photo by Ben Corwin, Research Communications

How much do you know about Alpacas? Personally, I know they have a tendency to spit, they look strikingly similar to llamas (I couldn’t tell you the differences between these animals, but I’m sure Wikipedia could), former Wildcat Drew Schlegel has an affinity toward them, and their wool is perfect for keeping me warm in the winter thanks to some alpaca ear warmers my grandparents gifted me a few years back from an alpaca store (did you know such a thing exists?) near Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

I didn’t know they could be used to help fight the virus that is currently affecting the entire world.

Alpaca antibodies could offer a defense against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that actually causes the coronavirus disease. University of Kentucky College of Medicine researchers are using these special antibodies – called nanobodies – to help understand the novel coronavirus and potentially develop a treatment that could protect people from being infected, according to a new report published by UKNow.

In Lexington, three alpacas are being used in this study – Big Boy, Blue Eyes and Emperor. The trio has been immunized with “isolated proteins from SARS-CoV-2.” From there, the researchers collect blood samples, extract and test the nanobodies, and reproduce them at a larger scale in order to aid in research efforts. The goal is to confer passive immunity in humans, which would help prevent people from contracting the disease in the short term, before there’s an approved vaccine.

To the researchers at UK and even to Big Boy, Blue Eyes and Emperor, this kind of testing is not new. Nanobodies have been used in research regarding HIV and other viruses for many years. In the past three years alone, these three alpacas have helped UK researchers generate more than 50 nanobodies to target proteins involved in a variety of human diseases including cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders.

In their spare time, they’re helping make those ear warmers I talked about, too – their fleece is also used to make artisan socks, scarves and sweaters. The trio of alpacas are favorites among those visiting River Hill Ranch, an alpaca farm near Richmond, Kentucky. It’s apparently the perfect place for alpaca-themed field trips, camps and yoga lessons. The farm’s partnership with UK is “a win-win,” according the farm’s owner, Alvina Maynard.

They are supporting local business, and we are supporting groundbreaking and potentially lifesaving research,” Maynard said. “I’m beyond thrilled that our alpacas can serve this greater purpose.”

Ear warmers and disease control. Who knew alpacas were so versatile?

For more of the science behind alpaca nanobodies and this research, check out the feature story on UKNow here.

Article written by Maggie Davis

I love sports, podcasts, long walks on the beach and Twitter (@MaggieDavisKSR)