At the beginning of May, the Government of Canada committed $175.6m in funding to Vancouver-based AbCellera Biologics, a biotech company focused on developing antibody-based drugs.

The funding came through the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF). This support for AbCellera’s work comes as part of the government’s Plan to Mobilise Science against Covid-19, which aims to support national projects that will contribute to the global race against Covid-19, as well as improve the country’s resilience against future pandemics.

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AbCellera is leveraging its proprietary antibody drug discovery technology to help identify antibodies from blood samples of recovered Covid-19 patients for drug development against the novel coronavirus causing this disease, SARS-CoV-2.

Canada’s Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains commented: “Our government is mobilising its resources to confront Covid-19, supporting the researchers and businesses that are working hard to develop medical countermeasures to beat this pandemic.

“Today’s contribution will support AbCellera as they use their world-leading technology to rapidly identify antibodies that could be used to develop a treatment for Covid-19 while ensuring Canada’s long-term preparedness for future health challenges.”

Exploring AbCellera’s approach against Covid-19

“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,” the company’s CEO Carl Hansen explains.

“AbCellera’s drug discovery platform combines high-throughput microfluidics, big data, machine learning, and genomics to search and analyse the immune system to find the best antibodies against a disease or virus,” he adds. “Our technology is the one fo the only in the world that can screen millions of cells, do next-generation sequencing and quickly down-select the best antibodies at this speed.”

After first receiving samples from recovered patients in late February, AbCellera quickly applied its microfluidics technology to identify over 500 unique human anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies with the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID).

“These antibodies target this virus specifically, and can be rapidly developed into a treatment,” explains Hansen. “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 3 weeks – a process that normally takes a decade.”

The company claims to have found 24 drug leads in just 23 days.

While still screening antibodies, AbCellera signed an agreement with Eli Lilly to advance the most advanced antibody identified into manufacturing. Hansen explains: “The plan is to submit an IND [investigational new drug] application with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) later this month and start clinical testing in patients shortly thereafter. For this programme, Lilly has the know-how, technologies, facilities and infrastructure to quickly manufacture antibody drugs and then to bring them into clinical trials.”

Discussing the collaboration when it was first agreed in March, Lilly chief scientific officer Daniel Skovronsky commented: “We’ve partnered with AbCellera because we’re impressed with the speed and quality of their efforts. We are moving at top speed to create a potential treatment to help patients.

“While typically a new therapeutic antibody programme 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.”

Improving future pandemic resilience

In addition to supporting AbCellera in its current efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, the Canadian Government’s funding will be used to improve the company’s ability to respond quicker to future pandemic outbreaks.

Hansen explains that, in the first phase of the project, a portion of the funding will be used to “improve and apply AbCellera’s antibody discovery platform to identify fully human antibodies for the potential prevention and treatment of Covid-19 and future pandemics”.

The second phase will support AbCellera in building a “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) facility in Vancouver”, which “will be the first in Canada capable of going from a patient sample to manufacturing antibodies for clinical testing”. Supporting this GMP facility is in line with the government’s plan to ensure the country learns lessons from Covid-19 and can respond better to future pandemics. 

Spotlight on Canada’s SIF

Although AbCellera’s funding of $175.6m is a significant chunk of the $275m set aside in the SIF; another company that has received Canadian Government support through this fund is Medicago.

Headquartered in Quebec City, Medicago is developing a plant-based vaccine candidate against Covid-19. This candidate, which is based on a virus-like-particle, was created within 20 days of receiving the SARS-CoV-2 gene.

Last week, the company announced positive results from animal trials of its candidate. As a result of this data, Medicago is planning to initiate a clinical study in healthy volunteers this summer, following approval from Health Canada and the US FDA.

Medicago’s CEO and president Dr. Bruce D. Clark commented: “We are grateful to the Government of Canada, without whom the advancement of this project through the final phase of development would not be possible.

“The cost of such development is a major obstacle for growing companies like ours, which must spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring a product to market.

“Covid-19 was not on any company’s radar, and that’s why financial support from governments is so important.”