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UW-Madison researchers say sharks hold potential for future COVID-19 treatment

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Nurse Sharks

MADISON (WKOW) -- UW-Madison researchers say study of four nurse sharks swimming in a campus lab aquarium holds promise in developing a more effective treatment for COVID-19.

The study involved examining the properties of the antibodies of the three-foot long, juvenile sharks after drawing their blood.

"They're very easy to handle," says Aaron LeBeau, Associate Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Radiology in the Carbone Cancer Center.

The study was published this month in the scientific journal Nature Communications. LeBeau says the research shows the smaller, shark antibodies could be superior to human antibodies in attacking COVID-19.

"They attach to the COVID-19 spike protein in a different way than shark antibodies," LeBeau says. "Shark antibodies are more like arrowheads, just kind of piercing through the protein to get into places you could never imagine targeting with a human antibody," says LeBeau.

But LeBeau says because the shark antibodies are smaller, their introduction to the blood of a COVID-19 patient would pass through the kidneys more quickly than human antibodies. He says researchers are brainstorming ways to modify the shark antibodies to extend their presence.

LeBeau says the focus of the next six to 12 months is to use mice and other research animals to glean more data on the ability of the shark antibodies to attack COVID-19.

"What really matters is going through larger models, animal models to see how effective they are compared to Regeneron therapies and other antibody cocktails," LeBeau says.

The UW-Madison research is a collaboration with Scottish biotech firm Elasmogen and is funded through approximately $400,000 provided by the Carbone Cancer Center and Andy North & Friends.

"We are able to generate shark antibodies to any target, which is COVID-19, other beta coronaviruses, influenza or even cancer," LeBeau says.

LeBeau came to UW-Madison in the spring from the University of Minnesota, where he had been doing shark antibodies studies. UW-Madison officials constructed the tank and apparatus for the nurse sharks. The sharks were procured from Florida.

LeBeau says teaming with Elasmogen could mean an advance to human trials and the development of a shark antibodies-based treatment within possibly two years. He says the similarities between the antibodies of nurse sharks and human beings are significant enough to believe rejection of the antibodies or ineffective response are not likely.

LeBeau says his early years in academia did not prepare him for a focus on research with sharks. "I never thought in a million years we'd be studying sharks."

But LeBeau says this first phase of research convinces him the potential is vast for the application of the antibodies of these denizens of the deep. "They're excellent neutralizing antibodies."