The Alpaca is a South American breed belongs to the camel family and was kept as pets by Andean people for its gleaming wool. They are soft and adorable. Their intellect and docile nature make them really enjoyable animals. Alpacas are sylphlike bodied animals with long neck and legs, small heads and pointed ears. Alpacas use their body language to convey their message, and spitting is usual when they are in pain, terrified or want to show supremacy. Alpacas are social animals; therefore, they live in groups comprised of male, female, and their babies. They are initially from Peru but can be found worldwide because of their adaptability to different environments. It is known that selective breeding was used more than 6000 years ago to develop alpacas, which is profoundly influenced by the vicuna.
Alpacas are often confused with llama. However, they are different from each other in many ways such as Alpacas are strikingly shorter than the llama, and unlike llamas, Alpacas are only bred for their fiber and not to be working animals. Another differential factor among the two is their ears. Alpacas have stick straight up ears, whereas llamas have ears that are folded over like bananas.
Moreover, llamas have thicker wool, whereas Alpacas have soft and fine wool, which is appropriate for making sweaters, blankets, hats, socks, ponchos, and a variety of knitted and woven items. There are approximately 22 color types in Alpacas, from black, blue to tans and white. Due to the durability and softness of their fiber, it is expensive, and Alpaca is one of the sturdiest animal fibers.
There are two types of Alpacas: Huacaya and Suri; the former is more common among the two, universally 98 percent of the Alpacas are Huacaya, and the major difference between the two is the type of fleece they produce. Huacaya grows a soft and fluffy fleece in the shape of tightly locked curls whereas, Suri has a long fleece that raises downwards, giving the impact of curtains.
A recent study shows that Alpaca’s immune system is extraordinarily unique because it has the potential to treat various life-threatening diseases such as Autism, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Cancer.
For quite some time, researchers have worked towards discovering several antibodies inhibitors to stop epidermal growth factor (EGF) receptors, but they lose their effectiveness after some time.
Therefore, researchers have turned their attention towards nature to solve this problem, and they have found out that Alpacas have the capacity to naturally produce antibodies, also referred to as nanobodies, because they are much smaller in size than normal antibodies. Furthermore, they are inexpensive and can be easily produced in large quantities, unlike traditional antibodies.
Also, these nanobodies are effective against EGF, which is an abnormally regulated protein in cancer cells. Antibodies produced by alpacas have inimitable features. They can be used for research and therapeutic purposes. Also, a group of researchers has been learning to understand how these antibodies help to regulate the PPP2R5D enzyme, which is related to several types of cancers, Alzheimer’s, autism, and other diseases.
Back in 1989, two university undergrads were asked to test camel blood serum, and they found out that antibodies were also present in alpacas and llamas.
After 30 years, researchers at Boston and MIT revealed that these antibodies were shrunk to create nano bodies that could provide a solution in the cancer field by getting CAR-T cell therapies functional for solid tumors. CAR-T (chimeric antigen receptor) cell therapy, which is most favorable for treating blood cancers, inherently taking the patient’s own T cell to attack cancer cells.
But CAR-T cells were not good enough to eradicate solid tumors. It’s been challenging to obtain proteins on solid tumors that are particular to cancer, and that could act as safe targets. Another barrier that protects the solid tumors is a web of proteins in the form of an extracellular matrix.
In 2013, when nanobodies got released from a Belgian team after the patent got expired, many people stepped into the competition and began to realize the value of the unique features of nanobodies. One valuable characteristic of these nanobodies is their enhanced targeting abilities.
Ploegh and his team at Boston, in collaboration with Noo Jalikhani and Richard Hynes at MIT’s cancer research center, have used nanobodies to incorporate imaging agents, permitting an accurate picture of metastatic cancers. The team aimed these nanobodies on the extracellular matrix that surrounds the tumor instead of the cancer cells.
Such signs are usual to tumors but are not found on normal cells. Ploegh’s lab is targeting those factors that are a hurdle to treat solid tumors by creating the CAR-T cells that are embossed with nanobodies that identify proteins surrounding the tumor environment, carrying the signals guiding them to kill any cell they are required to.
The scientists presented that the antibodies from camel and alpacas can endure the severe environment inside cells, unlike human antibodies or of most other animals. For years researchers have been inducing human and mouse antibodies on viruses but failed to get the desired results because the antibodies would lose their targeting ability.
Monoclonal antibodies are an essential part of the immune defense. They specifically recognize certain features on pathogens, cells and foreign substances. Physicians use this property in cancer diagnostics because antibodies also recognize typical features on tumor cells. They are also playing an increasingly important role in cancer therapy. Monoclonal antibodies are relatively large at 150 kDa, with two heavy chains and two light chains folded into constant and variable domains.
In contrast, Nanobodies are much smaller. Since they consist of only a single variable domain and weigh only 15 kDa, they offer high stability, high solubility and strong in vivo tissue penetration. They thus enable research and tumor control that is not possible with conventional antibodies.
In principle, the method of obtaining nanobodies from antibodies of alpacas has the potential to at least partially eliminate the need for current antibody production in animals.
So far, tens of thousands of experimental animals are used every year to produce antibodies on a large scale. The antibodies are collected from the animals’ blood and processed. This is time-consuming and ethically controversial, as the animals ultimately do not survive the continuous blood sampling.
On the other hand, the nano-bodies, once obtained from a small blood sample of an alpaca, can be multiplied as often as desired in the laboratory using bacteria. As in conventional antibody production, an alpaca is first vaccinated with a purified antigen. The animals hardly feel the small sting, and the purified antigens are modified so that they are harmless to the alpaca.
About two months later, about 100 millilitres of blood is taken from the alpaca – that is about a fifth of the amount people give away when they donate blood. The blueprints for the nano-bodies are then isolated from this in the laboratory.
Both the vaccination and the blood donation only take a few minutes for the animal. Afterward, it can return to the herd on the pasture.
A rare class of antibodies, small and stable, produced by camels, alpacas, and related species, was mentioned in a recent study. Researchers have found that antibodies from camelids do not lose their binding specificity when they contact a virus, which opens the way to directing these antibodies to exact tumor markers.
Much more work and caution are needed before scientists can offer effective cancer treatment. However, it cannot be ruled out that we will have a powerful cancer treatment in the next ten or twenty years, initiated by the alpaca immune system.