Adimab issues a challenge: Use new tech to build a rapid-response R&D platform for infectious diseases

Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross

Adimab CEO Tillman Gerngross wants to challenge the way governments the world over handle the R&D response to a frightening viral outbreak. And the Dartmouth professor is using a technology he's intimately familiar with to make his case.

This afternoon a team led by scientists at Gerngross's antibody enterprise in Lebanon, NH, published a paper in Science that outlines a pro bono project in which they radically reduced the amount of time it takes to identify a lineup of antibodies that could be used to combat Ebola. The same approach, says Gerngross, would work for Zika or any other new viral threat that pops up.

The Adimab team--which included top investigators at Scripps as well as the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases--are serving it up as a wake-up call to public health groups in charge of coordinating a response, hoping to shake up a field that still moves at a painfully slow pace, while fear now accelerates around the world at a quantum pace.

"There are multiple pieces of the puzzle that have to come together," says Laura Walker, the senior scientist at Adimab that had a leading role in the project. "We are one piece of that puzzle."

This new effort revolves around Adimab's newly built single B cell isolation platform. Using a blood sample from a victim of Ebola in 2014, they were able to identify more than 300 antibodies that demonstrated a promising reaction to the virus in a matter of weeks. All of the antibody sequences found in the study are being made available to researchers at no charge through GenBank. And Adimab's researchers are now doing the same for Zika.

"Once we get the sample," says Walker, "it should take 6 weeks to generate antibodies." And in this case, they gathered more antibody leads in weeks than researchers had seen in 20 years.

"The antibody panel discovered by Adimab covers every previously known binding site on Ebola virus and their work further revealed a new, highly potent neutralizing site, that has not been reported to date," said Andrew Ward, a structural analysis expert at Scripps Research Institute and a co-author of the study.

It typically takes more than a year to get something that resembles a therapeutic currently, Gerngross notes.

"That is a game changer," he adds about this new approach. "Now it's just a matter of putting the pieces together."

And therein lies the big challenge.

For Gerngross, who has built and sold companies while constructing a reputation as one of the leading scientists in antibody development, it's a chance to demonstrate what a tech platform like this--which cost $50 million to build--can do in the event of a public health crisis. And it's a direct challenge to radically change the way governments and researchers approach the sudden frenzy to find new therapies to protect large populations against an outbreak.

It took four months just to get the blood sample they needed to do the work. There's more time after the antibody identification process needed to move past lab studies and into animals, and then humans. But Gerngross believes that the right kind of response from government or an influential group like the Gates Foundation could key off this project to dramatically compress the time it takes to respond effectively in the clinic.

"This Ebola work shows what timelines could be," says the antibody expert, "what the world is clamoring for. And every time we go through the same conversation."

Now, he says, it's time to challenge the status quo and change the conversation once and for all.

- here's the Science abstract