Vancouver-based company AbCellera has received $175 million in funding from the Canadian federal government to develop antibody drugs for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19, in a partnership with Eli Lilly and Company. The funding was provided by the Government of Canada under its Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s (ISED) Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF).
The biotech company had announced its partnership with Lilly in mid-March to develop antibody drugs for COVID-19 treatment, with aims of beginning clinical trials in July of this year.
In contrast to convalescent plasma antibody therapy (in which antibodies from recovered individuals are directly injected into sick patients) or vaccines, monoclonal antibody drugs contain a purified or engineered antibody – that is screened and tested for efficacy – which recognizes a specific antigen on target cells to elicit an immune response against a foreign pathogen. It is hence a far more targeted approach than conventional antibody therapies.
Antibody therapeutics discovered in the partnership will undergo independent clinical development and testing by Lilly using their own funding, although initial development costs will be shared by the two companies.
In a press release from AbCellera, the company has stated that it will use the funding to “expand efforts related to the discovery of antibodies for use in drugs to treat COVID-19, and to build technology and manufacturing infrastructure for antibody therapies against future pandemic threats.”
According to AbCellera’s website, the company has developed a single-cell platform that enables automated therapeutic antibody discovery through the integration of technologies including proprietary immunizations, microfluidics, high-throughput imaging, genomics, deep computation, artificial intelligence and laboratory automation. Ultra-deep screening of single B cells is performed to leverage natural immune responses in order to rapidly isolate large and diverse panels of high-quality lead antibodies from various species, including humans.
The platform was used to screen millions of immune cells in the blood sample of one of the first US patients who had recovered from COVID-19 for those that made functional antibodies that neutralized the virus and helped the patient recover.
Through the screen, AbCellera identified over 500 unique human antibody sequences, which is the largest panel of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies reported to date.
“AbCellera’s platform has delivered, with unprecedented speed, by far the world’s largest panel of anti-SAR-CoV-2 antibodies,” said Dr. Carl Hansen, CEO of AbCellera, in a press release from the company.
Hansen further added in his statement that, “In 11 days, we’ve discovered hundreds of antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current outbreak, moved into functional testing with global experts in virology, and signed a co-development agreement with one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies. We’re deeply impressed with the speed and agility of Lilly’s response to this global challenge. Together, our teams are committed to delivering a countermeasure to stop the outbreak.”
AbCellera and Lilly will further screen the panel of antibodies to determine ones that are most effective in neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 in order to create targeted antibody therapeutics for COVID-19.
Pending approvals and agreements, the selected antibodies will be used in collaborations with the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, to test against the virus.
In addition to Lilly for COVID-19, AbCellera has made deals with other drug companies — including Novartis and Gilead — for therapeutic antibody drug development for other diseases. Gilead recently gained the first approval for its antiviral drug remdesivir for COVID-19 treatment.
As the COVID-19 pandemic presses on, fast-tracked testing and approvals for drugs and vaccines are increasingly becoming the norm.
Dr. Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific officer and president of Lilly Research Laboratories is excited to join in on these efforts with AbCellera, saying that, “While typically a new therapeutic antibody program might take years to get in the clinic, our goal with AbCellera is to be testing potential new therapies in patients within the next four months.”