Vancouver biotech firm AbCellera wins SIF research funding to fast-track antibody therapies against COVID-19

Mark Lowey
March 23, 2020

AbCellera, a Vancouver biotech company with technology spun off research at the University of British Columbia has partnered with Eli Lilly and Company to test therapeutic antibodies against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They aim to start clinical trials in late July.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on March 23 that AbCellera is one of several Canadian companies that will share $192 million in federal funding for priority projects under the government's new Strategic Innovation Fund COVID-19 stream to deliver direct support to Canadian companies for large-scale projects. The funding is part of Ottawa's recently announced $275 million for coronavirus research and medical countermeasures.

AbCellera, with its patented antibody-screening technology, has identified, in less than a week and from one blood sample from a U.S. patient recovered from COVID-19, more than 500 antibodies that helped the patient neutralize the virus.

“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,” says Carl Hansen, CEO and co-founder of AbCellera.

“We believe this is the largest panel of antibodies against this virus discovered so far, so it gives us a really good starting point for finding those that are going to be best suited for developing into a therapeutic or a prophylactic,” he says.

The Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, will test the antibodies for the ability to neutralize the virus.

Eli Lilly will select the most potent virus-neutralizing antibodies, along with other properties that make them suitable for large-scale manufacturing and drug development and then move to clinical trials.

“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,” says Daniel Akovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientific officer.

Technology sparked by academic research

The research behind AbCellera’s high-throughput antibody-screening platform started in Hansen’s academic lab when he was a professor at the University of British Columbia’s Michael Smith Laboratories. His lab focused on developing state-of-the-art microfluidic technologies for single-cell analysis.

Natural immune systems can create trillions of different antibodies and make a billion at any given time. The challenge is quickly and thoroughly searching the immune system to find antibodies with the right properties for developing into a therapeutic or a drug. AbCellera’s technology enables a rapid, deep search.

Founded in 2012, AbCellera integrated the Hansen lab’s initial technology platform for single-cell analysis with several cutting-edge technologies, including genomics, artificial intelligence, big data, lab automation, high-throughput imaging and microfluidics.

The company has established several partnerships with high-level biotech, pharma and international organizations, including Denali, Gilead, Novartis, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These partnerships and 55 programs completed so far have funded much of AbCellera’s growth on revenue.

In September 2018, AbCellera announced a US$10-million Series A financing round, led by DCVC Bio.

The company also was awarded a four-year contract worth up to US$30 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Defense, to lead an international project to develop an end-to-end platform for rapid pandemic response.

AbCellera, which has doubled in size every year, now has 117 employees in programming and data science (30% of the company), immunology, protein characterization and engineering. In March, AbCellera was named to Fast Company’s prestigious annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for 2020.


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