Lilly-partnered AbCellera gets COVID-19 boost from Canadian government

After penning a deal with Eli Lilly last month with the aim to have an antibody in the clinic within four months, Canadian-based AbCellera has been given a financial boost by its government.  

AbCellera said it will get up to $175.6 million in support from the government of Canada under its so-called Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada Strategic Innovation Fund.

This cash boost will be used to “expand efforts related to the discovery of antibodies for use in drugs to treat COVID-19” as well as to build out new tech and manufacturing infrastructure for antibody therapies “against future pandemic threats.”

AbCellera entered the race to develop a therapy against the SARS-CoV-2 virus by getting hold of a blood sample from one of the first U.S. patients to recover from the pathogen. Having secured the sample, AbCellera screened 5 million immune cells in search of ones that made the functional antibodies that helped the patient neutralize SARS-CoV-2.

The screening identified 500 or so fully human antibody sequences. With the project now advancing to an assessment of the antibodies’ effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, AbCellera enlisted Lilly in mid-March to help keep the program moving forward quickly.

Under that deal, AbCellera and Lilly will split initial development costs. Beyond that, Lilly will take over and try to get the candidate through development, manufacturing and talks with regulators as quickly as possible.

The next steps toward that goal will benefit from government support, including its recent boost from Canada. AbCellera is also set to work with the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center to express the antibodies it picked for screening.

If AbCellera and Lilly can hit their timeline, the antibody will be among the more advanced therapies developed specifically for SARS-CoV-2. While Gilead Sciences was the first to get a drug approved for the disease, it was repurposed from its original work in Ebola and therefore not engineered specifically to fight COVID-19.

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AbCellera is starting work on its drug with the virus in kind and could be on the path to being one of the first meds to intentionally treat the virus, though all the normal caveats on timelines and low success rates in R&D still apply.

“Each and every one of us is affected, and our teams stand together, galvanized to fight this outbreak,” said Carl Hansen, Ph.D., CEO of AbCellera. “We are proud to have the support of the Government of Canada to quickly find solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In addition to the support from the Canadian government, AbCellera is receiving support from Vancouver. “The City of Vancouver is fully committed to ensuring AbCellera has the infrastructure needed as they accelerate finding a treatment for COVID-19,” added Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart. “We couldn’t be more proud to be on the front lines of this global effort thanks to the innovation and leadership of AbCellera.”

Outside of COVID-19, AbCellera has inked deals with a series of Big Pharmas, including Novartis and Gilead—which last week gained the first approval for a COVID-19 drug in remdesivir—as well as with biotech Denali.