Researchers from Texas and Belgium reported in May that antibody variants isolated from llamas could neutralise the novel coronavirus. A type of antibody that llamas produce, called nanobodies, have features that make them interesting as a possible source of therapeutics.
The nanobodies the llamas produce bind to the spike proteins of the virus and compromise the pathogen’s ability to latch on to cells. The researchers reported their findings in May this year. Jason McLellan, a structural biologist at the University of Texas and one of the researchers, said in a statement, “This is one the first antibodies known to neutralise SARS-CoV-2.”
According to a feature published in Science in 2018, “Compared with conventional antibodies, … nanobodies are easier for researchers to make, more durable and more soluble. Small antibodies can work inside cells, and their size allows them to wend deep into tissues, which regular antibodies have a hard time penetrating.”
Such research could have been conducted in India – there is a National Research Centre on Camels (NRCC) in Bikaner – although it could be constrained by the country’s rapidly shrinking camel population, from over five lakh in 2007 to about half that number by 2018 .
However, the population of llamas has been shrinking in the US as well. The US Department of Agriculture publishes a census of agriculture every five years. In 2002, there were 145,000 llamas; in 2017, there were fewer than 40,000. Instead, the study underlines the importance of biodiversity to human health.
Many, if not most, human pharmaceuticals were first derived from natural sources. Aspirin is used to treat fever, pain and aching muscles, and is found in the bark of the willow tree. Compounds in a flowering plant called rosy periwinkle are used to treat leukaemia. In 2015, Youyou Tu was awarded part of the medicine Nobel Prize that year for discovering a drug in the sweet wormwood plant (Artemisia annua) in the 1970s. The drug, artemisinin, quickly became a mainstay in humankind’s fight against malaria.
Many medicines that cure illnesses that afflict us come from plants and animals, and the loss of biodiversity also means shrinkage in the natural pharmacy available to us. “As fires continue to burn in the Amazon and land is cleared for agriculture, most of the concerns have focused on the drop in global oxygen production if swaths of the forests disappear,” Walter Suza, an agronomist at Iowa State University, wrote in November 2019.
“But I’m also worried about the loss of potential medicines that are plentiful in forests and have not yet been discovered. Plants and humans also share many genes, so it may be possible to test various medicines in plants, providing a new strategy for drug testing.”
The May 2020 nanobodies finding was not reported widely in India. But aside from the fact that similar work could have been conducted on antibodies produced in camels in India as well, the scope for such studies is constrained by how research is structured.
For example, the NRCC could have undertaken such a study (llamas are a species of the camelid family, to which camels also belong). But the institution’s website states that its areas of study have more to do with camel-based economy. Its mandate and objectives are: conduct basic and applied research for improvement of camel health and production, maintain information repository on camel research and development, and develop camel eco-tourism.
The institute falls under the aegis of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and doesn’t collaborate much with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
ICAR is the largest network of research institutions dedicated to agriculture in the world, with a budget in 2018 of about Rs 8,000 crore. Four deemed universities are part of this network, plus 65 institutions and 14 national research centres; the camel centre in Bikaner is one of the latter. However, compared to other countries, agriculture research in India is still poorly funded – less than 1% of the total contribution of agriculture to the GDP.
More opportunities for cross-council research could help ICAR, ICMR and others make better use of their limited funds, as well as explore multi-disciplinary solutions for real-world problems – like the potential medicinal uses of camel milk or using nanobodies derived from llamas to develop drugs to treat those with COVID-19.
Arpita Roy, a sociologist of science at the University of Maryland, noted that the lack of collaboration in research is true not just of India but across the world. “In particle physics, they’ve been trying to dish out ‘spin-offs; from accelerator physics for medical applications, but while at CERN, I did not see or hear of medical research units involved,” she said.
Rosamma Thomas is an independent journalist. This report is supported by The Camel Partnership fellowship from Urmul Trust, Bikaner.