A Shark Solution to COVID-19

Proteins from the fish’s immune system can help humans prepare for coronavirus outbreaks.

Shark in aquarium

Sharks’ antibody-like proteins can prevent the virus that causes COVID-19, its variants, and related coronaviruses from infecting human cells. Bryce Richter

Here’s a shark attack we didn’t see coming: antibody-like proteins derived from the immune systems of sharks can prevent the virus that causes COVID-19, its variants, and related coronaviruses from infecting human cells, according to a UW–Madison study.

The proteins — known as VNARs — will not be immediately available as a treatment in people, but they can help prepare for future coronavirus outbreaks. The shark VNARs were able to neutralize WIV1-CoV, a coronavirus that is capable of infecting human cells but currently circulates only in bats. Developing treatments for such animal-borne viruses ahead of time can prove useful if those viruses make the jump to people.

“A number of coronaviruses are poised for emergence in humans,” says Aaron LeBeau, a UW associate professor of pathology in the Carbone Cancer Center who helped lead the study. “We’re preparing an arsenal of shark VNAR therapeutics that could be used down the road for future SARS outbreaks.”

One-tenth the size of human antibodies, the shark VNARs can bind to infectious proteins in unique ways that bolster their ability to halt infection.

“These proteins can get into nooks and crannies that human antibodies cannot access,” says LeBeau. “This allows them to recognize structures in proteins that our human antibodies cannot.”

Future therapies would likely include a cocktail of multiple shark VNARs to maximize their effectiveness against diverse and mutating viruses. This new class of drug is cheaper and easier to manufacture than human antibodies but has yet to be tested in humans.

Published in the Spring 2022 issue

Tags: Health and medicine, Research, Science

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