Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $175 million for a Vancouver biotech company, AbCellera Biologics Inc., which has identified antibodies that could be used to create treatments or a vaccine, in an May 3, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Vancouver biotech company discovering antibodies for COVID-19 treatment

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $175 million federal funding for AbCellera

There may be another valuable shield in the fight against COVID-19, and the head of a Vancouver biotech firm says it could buy time as researchers race to develop a vaccine.

Carl Hansen, CEO of AbCellera Biologics Inc., said a drug built with antibodies could be used to protect vulnerable populations until a vaccine is more widely available.

The antibodies would give patients all the molecular material they need to fight the disease instead of depending on their bodies to develop their own as with a vaccine, giving them faster protection, he said.

“A prophylactic antibody could well be more effective than a vaccine,” he said.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced $175 million federal funding for AbCellera to support its work in discovering those antibodies using a high-tech platform.

The funding also supports the company’s plans to build technology and manufacturing infrastructure for antibody therapies against future pandemic threats.

In partnership with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, AbCellera is among a handful of companies on track for clinical trials this summer.

“There are many groups trying to rapidly develop vaccines for COVID-19 and vaccines are a very important part of the global response,” Hansen said.

“What we’re doing is different. What we’re doing is searching through an immune response that was generated from an actual infection and recovery in a patient and then finding that one antibody out of the literally millions that is best suited to stop the virus and that can be manufactured,” he said.

In 2012, Hansen said AbCellera recognized it could combine technologies from artificial intelligence, genomics, microfluidics and immunology to quickly search through natural immune systems to find antibodies that fight infection.

Two years ago, AbCellera began working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the United States as part of a program to “radically accelerate” pandemic response, Hansen said. The company was working on simulations using its antibody-identifying technology when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

“We quickly pivoted our efforts,” Hansen said.

Using blood samples from one of the first recovered COVID-19 patients in the United States on Feb. 25, AbCellera began screening millions of cells.

It narrowed down 500 unique human antibodies against the virus to a set of 24 that showed high promise of being therapeutic, he said.

“More recently we have further refined that set to a single antibody that is now being manufactured with the objective of having a first in-human trial start in July,” Hansen said.

What typically takes up to five years has been accelerated to less than four months, he said.

Vaccines and antibody-based prevention drugs work differently. With a vaccine, you inject a patient with a weakened virus or part of a virus to stimulate the immune system’s natural production of antibodies. With a prophylactic antibody, you insert the antibodies into the patient, Hansen said.

There are benefits and drawbacks. On one hand, prophylactics create more immediate protection because there’s no waiting period for the body to create its own antibodies. It’s also more broadly effective, because not all patients’ immune systems may be up to the task of producing their own antibodies.

On the other hand, a substantial number of antibodies must be administered to the patient in order to protect them.

“What that means is that the ability to manufacture hundreds of millions or even a billion doses of a vaccine is something well within the realm of possibility today. Making that many doses of antibodies is not,” he said.

That would mean giving the antibody to select groups of people at risk, such as health workers or the elderly, Hansen said.

The World Health Organization recommends that pharmacological treatment for COVID-19 should not be used outside of clinical trials.

On April 27, British Columbia’s COVID-19 therapeutics committee issued the same warning.

“There are no proven therapies for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19. All agents have the possibility of associated harm, and pharmaceutical supplies province-wide and nationally for many of the possible agents are severely limited,” it said.

For Hansen, research and development during the pandemic has not been business as usual.

“It’s not a race against our competitors nearly as much as it’s a race against the virus,” he said.

“What matters most is we get a therapy out there that works for patients and do so as quickly as possible.”

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Salmon Arm’s Alexander Street to be open to foot traffic only on Saturdays

Downtown Salmon Arm announces plan to provide more space for restaurants, other businesses

Salmon Arm RCMP seek to reunite Fender guitar with owner

Police ask for owners of items to call detachment

Salmon Arm tackles cracked sidewalks, potholes, despite lack of 1-800 number

Replacing sidewalks isn’t cheap but city staff, politicians still want to hear about problems

Houseboat company partly owned by Shuswap MLA withdraws controversial ad

The ad welcomed houseboaters from other provinces, contradicting anti COVID-19 measures.

Squabble between campers in North Shuswap leads to bear spraying

An argument over late night partying escalated into a fight which led to one person being sprayed

Kelowna couple pedalling past loss of sight

Pauline and Jim Marshall said it’s important to be patient with each other

Police investigating after hydrant hit by van in West Kelowna

The incident occurred around 5:40 p.m. near Boucherie Road

Pregnant Revelstoke woman catches COVID-19 days before giving birth

Michelle Hunter said she felt like she was in a horror movie when she discovered she had COVID-19

Vernon chamber backs council’s opposition of downtown overdose prevention site

The chamber sent a letter to B.C.’s health minister calling for the site not to be located downtown

Princeton RCMP stop men intent on jumping off bridge

Princeton RCMP investigating a trespassing complaint arrived in time to stop two… Continue reading

Another Asian giant ‘murder hornet’ found in Lower Mainland

This is the farthest east the invasive species has been found so far

B.C. girl left temporarily paralyzed by tick bite sparks warning from family

Mom says parents need to check their kids when they go camping

Bird knocks out power for thousands in North Okanagan

Evening outage was brief, but affected nearly 3,000 residents

PHOTOS: Loved ones reunite at an oasis on closed U.S.-Canada border in Surrey

Officials closed the park in mid-March over coronavirus concerns

Most Read