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)

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

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 65 new cases of COVID-19

Province-wide, there are 887 new cases of the virus

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Interior Health reports 70 new cases overnight

The total number of cases in the region is now at 1,426

The TNRD will no longer be offering free disposal days at its 29 solid waste facilities throughout the region. (Photo credit: TNRD)
TNRD votes to end free disposal days at solid waste facilities

Mattresses and tires on rims to be added to items that can be brought in at no charge year-round

The high volume of mail-in ballots received was still not enough to prevent this year’s voter turnout in Fraser-Nicola being the lowest on record. (Photo credit: Black Press files)
Voter turnout in 2020 provincial election lowest since 1928

Turnout in Fraser-Nicola lowest in riding’s history, but was boosted by mail-in votes

Get your plaid on and take advantage of Plaid Friday deals in Ashcroft on Nov. 27. (Photo credit: NDIT)
Community businesses need you to shop locally this Christmas

Local businesses are there when you need them, so be there when they need you

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry update the COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature, Nov. 23, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. sets another COVID-19 record with 887 new cases

Another 13 deaths, ties the highest three days ago

Screenshot of Pastor James Butler giving a sermon at Free Grace Baptist Church in Chilliwack on Nov. 22, 2020. The church has decided to continue in-person services despite a public health order banning worship services that was issued on Nov. 19, 2020. (YouTube)
Two Fraser Valley churches continue in-person services despite public health orders

Pastors say faith groups are unfairly targeted and that charter rights protect their decisions

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Gold medallists in the ice dance, free dance figure skating Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, of Canada, pose during their medals ceremony at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Charlie Riedel
Olympic champions Virtue, Moir and Tewksbury among 114 Order of Canada inductees

Moir and Virtue catapulted to national stardom with their gold-medal performances at the Winter Olympics in 2018

Shoppers line up in front of a shop on Montreal’s Saint-Catherine Street in search of Black Friday deals in Montreal, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Black Friday shopping in a pandemic: COVID-19 closes some stores, sales move online

Eric Morris, head of retail at Google Canada, says e-commerce in Canada has doubled during the pandemic.

School District 27 announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 this week (Nov. 23) at Lake City Secondary School Williams Lake campus. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Entire gym class at northern B.C. high school isolating after confirmed COVID case

Contact tracing by Interior Health led to the quarantine

After twice have their wedding plans altered due to COVID-19 restrictions, Suzanne Schmidt and Andrew Sturgess got married in Bakerview Park last weekend, with the only guests being their two daughters, Zoey (foreground) and Tessa. (Darren Ripka photo)
From New Zealand to Bakerview Park, B.C. couple weds in ‘backyard’

Twice scaled-down wedding ‘proof that good things still happen during bad times’

Most Read