SEATTLE — They're cute and mostly friendly.
And llamas have something most animals don't.
"This strange property of producing these small simple antibodies," said John Aitchison of Seattle Children's Research Institute.
That means llamas hold great promise in the fight against the coronavirus.
Along with colleagues at The Rockefeller University, Aitchison's hopes are on a llama named Marley.
“Marley’s living a pretty good life generally. He’s free-range on a farm in the Berkshire Mountains,” Aitchison said.
Soon after COVID-19 arrived in America, researchers injected Marley with the spike protein from the coronavirus.
It does not make llamas sick, but it does allow them naturally to produce antibodies called nanobodies, which are collected in blood samples.
"These are early days. I'm happy to report that Marley is producing antibodies that look promising so far," Aitchison said.
The next step is to isolate specific nanobodies in the lab, find ones that work to combat the coronavirus and produce them in bacteria.
The idea, eventually, is to make a treatment for coronavirus patients that may be administered deep in the lungs to keep the coronavirus from spreading.
"I don't think there's a biologist in the world that's not thinking about this right now," Aitchison said.
Researchers in Belgium and Texas have a head start.
A llama named Winter was already producing antibodies for other coronaviruses, and scientists have now created an antibody that, according to initial tests, blocks COVID-19.
The Seattle Children’s Research Institute is moving ahead, too.
"We're rushing this along as quickly as possible. We hope to have our first nanobodies within a couple of weeks," Aitchison said.
It could take a while for any therapy to be ready for patients.
But the same nanobodies could be used sooner to develop a simple COVID-19 test where you spit on a stick and get results as quickly as with a home pregnancy test.