Mostly known for its lustrous fleece and predilection for vigorous spitting, the humble alpaca may soon be more famous for its extraordinary immune system. A study has discovered that the animals produce unique nanobodies that could be recruited into a new treatment for cancer.

Epidermal growth factor (EGF), when over expressed, is fundamentally associated with a number of cancers and researchers have worked for some time to try to find ways to block its expression. Several monoclonal antibody inhibitors have been developed that target EGF receptors but they are not consistently effective, and patients can quickly develop resistance to these kinds of drugs.

The new research looked to nature for a solution, working to harness the unique immune systems of alpacas to produce a novel molecule that could be adapted into a therapeutic treatment. Alpacas are one of very few animals that can naturally produce single-domain antibodies. These are much smaller than common antibodies and are often referred to as nanobodies. Cheaper, and easier to mass produce than traditional monoclonal antibodies, nanobodies promise an exciting new future in drug treatments.

"By injecting EGF into the alpaca we have challenged nature to find a molecule capable of binding tightly and with high selectivity to EGF, and it has come up with two very different but equally effective solutions for such a small and difficult antigen as EGF," explains Ernest Giralt, lead on the new research.

At this stage the researchers have only established that these unique nanobodies are an effective EGF inhibitor. The next stage is extensive study to find out whether these nanobodies actually have a pharmacological effect in animal models of cancer. It may be early days for the work but it lays the foundation for exciting study into a new generation of cancer treatment.

This isn't the first impressive medical innovation to potentially stem from the amazing immune system of an alpaca. In fact, alpaca antibodies may provide entirely new blueprints for scientists to work off. Alpacas and camels are part of a biological family called camelids and it was only in 1989 that some student researchers stumbled upon the animal's extraordinarily unique ability to produce a previously unseen kind of antibody.

The regular caveat of course applies here, much more work needs to be done before researchers can deliver an effective human therapeutic treatment. However, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to think that in ten or twenty years we may have a potent cancer treatment inspired by the immune systems of the curious spitting alpaca.

The new study was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

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