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Interview: ‘A single nanobody could help us combat future viral outbreaks’

This is an interview with a PhD student of the Disease Intervention Strategies projects in a series of background articles. Keep following this website for the next interview in this series.

Interview with Iris Swart, PhD student of the Nanobody-based targeted therapy to combat zoonotic viral infections project at Utrecht University.

Iris Swart’s research focusses on llama-derived nanobodies – no, really. Specifically cross-reactive nanobodies, that target multiple viruses. They could be important to help make the world more pandemic-prepared.

‘What if part of the solution to global pandemics could be found in llamas? I think llama-derived nanobodies could be key in combatting future coronavirus and influenza virus outbreaks.

My research is about nanobodies, which are small antigen binding antibody fragments. They are ten times smaller than the conventional antibodies of our human immune system. We actually derive nanobodies from llama antibodies, as humans don’t produce them.

Being smaller, nanobodies can infiltrate areas an antibody possibly can’t reach. They can also be produced at lower costs, they are highly stable and they bind pathogens with high affinities. Another advantage is that we can optimise them in a lot of different ways.

What I’m specifically trying to find is cross-reactive nanobodies targeting multiple viruses. This kind of nanobody would bind to what are called ‘conserved epitopes’ on surface proteins of the viruses. ‘Conserved’ means areas that are commonly shared between different virus strains.

Imagine a previously non-human infecting influenza or coronavirus crossing from animals to humans. If we find a nanobody that binds to a strong conserved epitope, it would also bind to that virus, helping to keep it at bay. In this way the cross-reactive nanobody would help us to be more pandemically prepared.

Coronavirus-related research has become extremely relevant due to the current pandemic. I find it really striking that something as small as a virus can have such an impact on our daily life. Viruses are very dynamic and the way they make use of living cells is remarkably smart. This is why I see it as a challenge to find ways to outsmart them.’

PhD project: Nanobody-based targeted therapy to combat zoonotic viral infections.