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Proteins From Shark May Help Prevent Coronavirus Infections: Study

Researchers in the US have developed a new class of drug using proteins derived from sharks that they claim may help prevent coronavirus infections.

Written by Longjam Dineshwori |Updated : December 17, 2021 3:31 PM IST

Scientists around the world are aggressively working on finding the potential drugs for prevention and treatment of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus also called SARS-CoV-2. In a breakthrough discovery, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have shown that proteins from shark may be used to create a new class of drug that can help prevent SARS-CoV-2, its variants, and related coronaviruses from infecting human cells. Further they said that the potential drug would be cheaper and easier to manufacture than human antibodies and can be delivered into the body through various routes. However, the shark proteins are yet to be tested in humans. Preliminary results of their study were published in the journal Nature Communications.

Sharks may help prevent future SARS outbreaks

According to the researchers, the unique proteins derived from the immune systems of sharks are one-tenth the size of human antibodies. Known as VNARs, they can bind to infectious proteins in unique ways that bolster their ability to halt infection.

In lab tests, the research team found that the VNARs were able to neutralise WIV1-CoV -- a coronavirus that is capable of infecting human cells, but currently circulates only in bats.

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Aaron LeBeau, Professor of pathology at the varsity, stated that there are a number of coronaviruses that are poised for emergence in humans. Shark VNAR drugs they are preparing could be used to tackle future SARS outbreaks. "It's a kind of insurance against the future," he said, as quoted by IANS.

LeBeau explained that the small antibody-like proteins from sharks can get into areas where human antibodies cannot access, and form unique geometries that allow them to recognise structures in proteins that our human antibodies cannot.

Shark proteins may be effective against Omicron as well

In the study, the researchers tested the shark proteins against both infectious SARS-CoV-2 and a version of the virus that can't replicate in cells.

They were then able to identify three candidate shark VNARs that effectively stopped the SARS-CoV-2 from infecting human cells. These proteins were also found to be effective against SARS-CoV-1, which caused the first SARS outbreak in 2003.

One VNAR, named 3B4, got attached strongly to a groove on the viral spike protein near where the virus binds to human cells, and it appears to block this attachment process. Similar mechanism also allowed 3B4 to effectively neutralise the MERS virus, a distant cousin of the SARS viruses, the authors stated.

This 3B4 binding site remained unchanged even in prominent SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the delta variant. Although this research was conducted before the discovery of the Omicron variant, LeBeau said that their initial models suggest the powerful shark protein would remain effective against the new variant as well.

Another shark VNAR, named 2C02, appears to make the spike protein inactive. However, its binding site is altered in some SARS-CoV-2 variants, which likely decreases its potency.

The researchers are hopeful that a cocktail of multiple shark proteins may help fight against diverse and mutating viruses in the future. They are also studying the ability of shark VNARs for treatment of cancers.

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