Sharks are often associated with gruesome stories of attacks and horror. However, lead researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, Dr. Aaron LeBeau believes sharks deserve to be recognized in a more positive light– due to their potential for creating advanced neutralizing antibodies (NAb) therapeutics for treating SARS-CoV-2.
Neutralizing antibodies have demonstrated efficacy in treating SARS-CoV-2 in previous trials. In the recent past, the FDA authorized two NAb therapeutics for emergency use for SARS-CoV-2. However, the effectiveness of these two treatments has been complicated by the development of new variants with highly mutated target antigens. These naturally occurring mutations in the target antigen result in insufficient neutralization of the virus when using those current therapeutics derived from classical human antibodies.
This is news for concern as genome sequencing exposed the virus to create two single-letter mutations each month.
As we learned in our AP Biology class, mutations to proteins such as SARS-CoV-2 antigens occur within the amino acid chains in the protein’s primary structure. These changes in chemicals could alter the kinds of covalent or ionic bonds in the protein’s tertiary structure. This, of course, changes the antigen’s three-dimensional shape. This is why the original NAbs have experienced diminished performance as new variants emerged. The antibodies from the treatments simply could no longer recognize the virus’ new antigen structure.
Therefore, there is a dire need for the development of new, more specialized NAbs, that can recognize the newly mutated epitopes that are currently incompatible with current neutralizing antibody therapeutics.
Dr. Aaron LeBeau believes that key findings for creating more efficient NAb treatments could be derived from the likes of nurse sharks! Within the immune systems of sharks, antibody-like proteins called Variable New Antigen Receptors (VNARs) were found to be highly effective at neutralizing coronaviruses, according to his recent publication in the Nature Communications journal.
Due to the small and highly specialized structure, VNARs are able to access and bind to epitopes that human antibodies normally couldn’t. This superior ability allows VNARs to reach deep into pockets and grooves within the target antigen, allowing for a better fit and neutralization. Dr. LeBeau’s research team concluded that their data suggests that VNARs would be effective therapeutic agents against emerging SARS-CoV-2 mutants, such as the Delta and Omnicron variants.
With the help from researchers from the University of Minnesota and the Scottish biotech company, Elasmogen, the team hopes to develop the shark antibodies for therapeutic use within 10 years.
Do you think this is promising news? How do you feel about using shark “antibodies” in place of our own for serious cases of SARS-CoV-2? Assuming it’s safe, effective, and accessible to you, would you accept this treatment if you contracted a serious case of SARS-CoV-2? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.