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Updated: January 22, 2010 14:52 IST

Llamas can help fight bio-terrorism: Scientists

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Llamas are usually found in South America. Biologists have found that protein derived from these animals can detect the most deadly naturally occuring toxins. File photo
AP
Llamas are usually found in South America. Biologists have found that protein derived from these animals can detect the most deadly naturally occuring toxins. File photo

Now, llamas can play an important role in the fight against terror, as scientists have developed a way to use the animal’s proteins that can detect botulinum neurotoxins (BoNTs) - the deadliest naturally occurring toxins that have potential to be used as bioweapons.

Scientists at Foundation for Biomedical Research (SFBR) in Texas claimed to have developed the BoNT-detecting substances or the antibodies - proteins made by the body to fight diseases - found in llamas.

The llama antibodies, called single domain antibodies (sdAb) or “nanobodies,” are molecularly flexible, unlike conventional antibodies, ScienceDaily reported.

“As such, sdAb may allow biosensors to be regenerable and used over and over without loss of activity. Also, for some types of BoNT, conventional antibodies are not generally available and we are filling this biosecurity gap,” said Andrew Hayhurst, lead researcher and a virologist at the SFBR.

“Since some sdAb have been shown to have inhibitory activity and can block toxin function, they may play a role as part of a future anti-botulism treatment,” Mr. Hayhurst wrote in his research paper, published in the journal PLoS ONE.

BoNTs, which are about 100 billion times more toxic than cyanide, directly hit the nervous system, resulting in paralysis that can be so severe as to require life support on a mechanical ventilator for weeks to months.

BoNTs are the only toxins in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) ‘category A’ list of potential bioterror threats alongside anthrax, Ebola virus and other infectious agents.

Countermeasures such as vaccines and therapeutics to prevent and treat botulism are extremely limited, and thus, the ability to detect these toxins in the environment is critically important, the researchers said.

In the study, a llama was immunized with harmless versions of seven types of BoNT, blood taken to provide antibody producing cells.

Using bioengineering techniques, the antibody genes were cloned and the resulting antibodies were tested for their ability to detect BoNT in a selection of drinks, including milk.

Mr. Hayhurst and his team are continuing to study the molecular interactions of the llama antibodies to find out why they are so specific and why some of them inhibit toxins.

“We not only aim to use the antibodies in BoNT detection tests, but also to understand how they bind and inhibit these fascinating molecules,” Mr. Hayhurst said.

“We are also striving to improve our test by making it more sensitive that one day it may be able to detect much smaller amount of toxins found in patients’ blood.”

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