WINTER’S KILOBYTES × WE (Wk×W)

Koen Vanmechelen

In the millennial year 2000, I presented my wife Inge Kindt with the surprise gift of two llamas. We called them Ohm and Padma. Because of the Dalai Lama, we had made the connection with Buddhism. We thought of our llamas as an incentive for growth in our lives. They were an important step in our quest for connections, as well as a surprising addition to the ecosystem of the Cosmopolitan Chicken Project (CCP).

We were struck by how strong these animals were, and witnessed how they miraculously overcame a rhododendron poisoning. This got me thinking. I saw a connection between the high altitudes of the llamas’ natural habitat and their production of red blood cells. Curious to know more, I contacted a number of scientists, including Professor Raymond Hamers (VUB), who had discovered that dromedaries have special antibodies which, by extension, is true for all camelids, including llamas.

As an artist, I dreamed about linking the llamas’ immune system with the CCP’s chicken eggs, and consulted various immunologists. Eventually, Xavier Saelens and Bert Schepens (VIB/Ghent University) pointed me to important scientific studies on this topic. Not long after, we decided to collaborate, each contributing from the perspective of our own field of expertise. In 2015, this resulted in a beautiful show at Het Domein, a museum in Sittard. It featured a live dromedary on the centre stage and a real laboratory, run by Xavier and Bert. The show’s iconic title was: THIS IS NOT A CHICKEN. In 2016, two alpaca’s arrived at Wilford X (Temse). An exhibit and expert debate and embraced the project. It was the start of a unique meeting of minds.

Twenty years on from the arrival of Ohm and Padma, a new llama, Winter, has joined our herd. Winter is the star of research in the fight against the coronavirus, conducted by Xavier Saelens and Jason McLellan. And so, LABIOMISTA is becoming Ground Zero for a new age, one in which art, science and nature are the building blocks of a new paradigm, founded on a mutual respect for shared knowledge.

Scientific research

More than 20 years ago, researchers at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) led by Professor Hamers discovered that camelids have special antibodies. Ever since the discovery of these Nanobodies®, they have inspired ground-breaking research worldwide. These special antibodies are smaller in camelids than in other vertebrates, they can attach themselves precisely and firmly to bacteria or viruses invading living organisms.

For immunity research, a tiny amount of an inactivated virus is administered to a camelid, after which its immune system kicks in to produce antibodies.

In 2016, a team of researchers from the labs of Xavier Saelens (VIB/Ghent University) and Jason McLellan (University of Texas) discovered in Winter the llama, antibodies which can block coronaviruses such as MERS and SARS. This SARS-specific antibody is also able to block the new COVID-19 virus. The discovery of these antibodies in Winter may thus lead to the development of a drug treatment for COVID-19 patients.

For more information about the research, go to:
www.vib.be

PRESS

- The Guardian, 'Llamas are the real unicorns': why they could be our secret weapon against coronavirus, May 2020

- CBC radio, Meet Winter, the 4-year-old llama whose blood might hold a treatment for COVID-19, May 2020

- The Washington Post, The urgent quest for a coronavirus treatment involves door-to-door blood collection and a llama named Winter, May 2020