TORONTO – How confident is Canada’s government that Abcellera Biologics Inc. can identify viral antibodies to help stop COVID-19 in its tracks and build the manufacturing infrastructure for antibody therapies against future pandemic threats? Enough to award the Vancouver, British Columbia-based biotech CA$175.6 million (US$124.7 million) for the application of its antibody discovery platform to the analysis of patients who have recovered from COVID-19.

“Today’s contribution will support Abcellera Biologics as they use their world-leading technology to rapidly identify solutions for COVID-19 while ensuring Canada’s long-term preparedness for future health challenges,” said Canada’s minister of innovation, science and industry Navdeep Bains.

“Prior to Abcellera’s technology, finding the right antibody was a painstaking process that could take years and often didn’t yield the best results,” Abcellera CEO Carl Hansen told BioWorld. “Our tech is one of the only in the world that can screen millions of cells, do next-gen sequencing and quickly down select to the best antibodies.”

Mind the spikes

Antibodies are released by our immune systems as a defense against a foreign agent such as a virus. That includes the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 with its myriad of proteins at the surface and sub-surface which protect the virus and are potential targets for the antibodies.

“Antibodies can both block the virus from infecting human cells or mark them for destruction by other immune cells,” said Hansen. “They are the ideal infection-fighting agents and can also be made into a drug.”

But not just any antibody will do. Abcellera has identified more than 500 unique human anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from one of the first North American samples from a recovered patient. Binding to the spike-enveloped virus, each of those 500 antibodies in turn possesses approximately 500 distinct features.

The trick is to drill down during analysis of an antibody to see which of these characteristics helps neutralize the virus. To that end, Abcellera has developed a microfluidic device about the size of a credit card containing 200,000 nano-sized reaction chambers to isolate a single cell that secrete a single, unique antibody type.

“Within each chamber, we test to find which ones have antibodies that can bind the “spike” protein on SARS-CoV-2,” said Hansen. “We combine machine learning with lab work to narrow down thousands of antibodies that can bind the target to the best antibody candidates.”

Hansen said Abcellera has discovered many unique antibodies that target COVID-19 specifically, at a speed that could redefine drug discovery and be rapidly developed into a treatment, likely before a vaccine can be ready.

“In our real-time response to COVID-19, we were able to go from a recovered patient sample to a group of lead drug candidates in just three weeks, a process that normally takes years,” said Hansen.

Building for the future

Abcellera has been here before. Two years ago, under a US$30 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s DARPA research agency, the Vancouver company adapted and pressure tested its platform to simulate responses to pandemic Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and influenza.

Bigger news came March 12 when Abcellera and Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company reported joint plans to seek a treatment for COVID-19 with the goal of beginning clinical trials this July. As part of the collaboration, Lilly will independently fund and lead clinical development and testing of antibody therapeutics discovered through this partnership.

“Lilly has the know-how, technologies, facilities, and infrastructure to quickly manufacture antibody drugs and then to bring them into clinical trials and ultimately to commercialize them,” said Hansen.

Historically, Canada hasn’t had the infrastructure necessary for antibody drugs manufactured “in large reactors that are full of cells,” Hansen noted. Hence, the importance of the government award, which will be deployed in two phases. The first phase will involve further expansion of Abcellera’s platform, team and capabilities to rapidly respond to pandemic outbreaks.

Under phase two, and likely to take several years, a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility will be built in Vancouver, the first in Canada capable of going from a patient sample to manufacturing antibodies for clinical testing, said Hansen.

“The most advanced antibody in this program shows potent neutralization of live virus and is in GMP manufacturing with our partner, Eli Lilly,” said Hansen. “The plan is to submit an investigational new drug application with the FDA later this month and start clinical testing shortly thereafter.”

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