A unique type of small antibody made by llamas could give a new COVID-19 frontline treatment that patients can use as a simple nasal spray.

Nanobodies-a smaller, simpler kind of antibody produced by llamas and camels-have been proven to successfully target the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, according to research headed by U.K. scientists at the Rosalind Franklin Institute.

"Although this research is still at an early stage, it opens up significant possibilities for the use of effective nanobody treatments for COVID-19," Miles Carroll, deputy director of the National Infection Service, Public Health England (PHE), said.

"These are among the most effective Sars-CoV-2 neutralizing agents we have ever tested at PHE."

The strength with which nanobodies bind to the virus accounts for this apparent COVID-fighting ability. Virus-specific nanobodies, like our own antibodies, latch on to and bind to viruses and bacteria that infiltrate our bodies.

This binding acts as a "red flag" for an invading virus, allowing the rest of the body's immune system to target it for elimination.

These nanobodies, which were created with the help of a llama's immune system, bind extremely firmly.

"That's where we had some help from Fifi the 'Franklin [Institute] llama'," James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute said.

The scientists drove Fifi's immune system to produce the unique molecules by vaccinating her with a tiny, non-infectious portion of the viral protein. The researchers then carefully selected and refined the most effective nanobodies in a sample of Fifi's blood, those that most closely matched the viral protein, like a key that matches a specific lock.

The team was then able to produce huge amounts of the most effective compounds after carefully selecting them.

Compared to human antibodies, nanobodies have a lot of benefits. They're less expensive to make and can be delivered directly to the airways via a nebulizer or nasal spray, so they can be self-administered at home instead of requiring an injection.

This may benefit patients in terms of ease of use, but it also gets the treatment to the infection site in the respiratory system.

The research team, which includes scientists from the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford, as well as Public Health England, is now seeking funds to prepare for human clinical trials.