We all know llamas as those funny-looking animals at the petting zoo or from pictures of them grazing on Machu Picchu, but did you know they could also inspire the next generation of medicine in humans. In “proof of concept” experiments, researchers have created tiny proteins derived from llama antibodies, which could potentially deliver targeted medicine in human cells.
What are nanobodies?
In llamas, the role of these proteins – named nanobodies – is to mark potential invaders for the immune system to destroy. They work by binding to sodium ion channels which are important structures in regulating nerve and muscle cells.
Nanobodies were first discovered in the 1980s and interestingly only exist in some species, including sharks and camelids, the animal family of camels and llamas. Since then, scientists have tried to utilize these molecules in creative ways, such as in a delivery system for anti-cancer drugs.
How can nanobodies be used in humans?
A research team from Johns Hopkins University recently realized nanobodies also have potential use in influencing nerve and muscle cell activity. As the llama-derived proteins only bind to specific types of sodium ion channels in the human body, they could be used to directly target these structures. Other studies from the university found that nanobodies can carry additional molecules with them as cargo.
Putting these pieces of information together, the team realized nanobodies could be utilized as a very specific medication delivery service. The molecules could be used to precisely target tissues in a safer, more efficient way, with potential uses in treating irregular heart rhythms, seizures, and pain alleviation during surgery.
“This is why clinicians and pharmaceutical companies are interested in finding drugs that can modulate these channels—either to turn on or off—distinctly,” explains Sandra Gabelli, author of the study.
So far, the team has shown the specificity of nanobody binding in mouse and human cells and tissues, but there is a long way to go before llama proteins are going anywhere near living people. The group plans to continue this line of research and conduct imaging experiments to visualize nanobody and sodium ion channels bound together. This way, more biochemical information about how this interaction functions can be revealed.
Source study: Journal of Biological Chemistry – Development of high-affinity nanobodies specific for NaV1.4 and NaV1.5 voltage-gated sodium channel isoforms