Celltrion plans July COVID-19 trial, advances 'super antibody'

Jung Jin Seo, chairman, Celltrion Group (Celltrion)

Celltrion is aiming to start testing an antibody treatment for COVID-19 in humans in July. The Korean drug developer is working to get the SARS-CoV-2-neutralizing treatment into clinical trials while also advancing a candidate designed to eliminate all related coronavirus strains.

In an update on its efforts to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, Celltrion said it has now selected the most potent antibodies against the coronavirus from a pool of 300 prospects. Celltrion identified 14 antibodies that it described as having “powerful” effects against SARS-CoV-2. 

“These antibodies can recognize multiple epitopes, thus increasing the probability of nonspecific antigen binding,” Ki-Sung Kwon, head of the R&D unit at Celltrion, said in a statement.  

Having passed that milestone, Celltrion, which is collaborating with the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), is set to start cell-line development. Celltrion plans to start mass production of the antibody after completing cell-line development. At the same time, the Korean biotech will work with the KCDC to assess the efficacy and toxicity of the drug in mice and nonhuman primates. 

The timeline puts Celltrion on track to be one of a number of companies that begin clinical tests of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies over the summer months. Regeneron is set to start a clinical trial as early as June, while AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKline are all involved in projects that could reach human testing later in the summer.

At Celltrion, the lead COVID-19 candidate is trailed by other prospects that could improve or expand its efficacy. Specifically, Celltrion, like companies including Brii Biosciences and Regeneron, is looking at whether combining different antibodies into a single treatment yields better results.

That is one way Celltrion is trying to improve on its lead candidate. The other way is to extend the efficacy of the treatment beyond the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In that project, Celltrion hopes to develop a “super antibody” capable of neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 and related strains, such as the coronavirus that caused the SARS outbreak in 2003.

If successful, Celltrion’s super antibody project could give the world an insurance policy against the mutation of SARS-CoV-2. Similarly, the super antibody could provide a ready-made first response to a later outbreak of a different but related coronavirus.