How a Canadian firm is accelerating the development of therapeutics

Innovative Canadian companies are harnessing the power of sophisticated digital technologies to develop effective therapeutics in entirely new ways. This work involves advanced research at the nexus of multiple disciplines, including microbiology, biochemistry and computer science.

The tremendous value of this research became apparent during COVID‑19 with the rapid development and production of vast quantities of both vaccines and therapeutics. The capacity to quickly develop new therapeutics will only become more important in the future as integrated global supply chains, particularly in the food and agri‑food sectors, increase the likelihood of new pandemics emerging.

In Canada, strong collaboration between academic institutions and private companies, supported by investors and government programs, sparks innovations that advance global efforts to combat disease and improve human health. AbCellera Biologics of Vancouver, British Columbia is one example of Canada’s thriving biotech sector.

AbCellera Biologics

As COVID‑19 spread around the globe, AbCellera Biologics announced a remarkable breakthrough: the development of an effective treatment for the disease. Known as bamlanivimab, the treatment is based on antibodies — the proteins produced by the immune system to identify and neutralize pathogens such as bacteria and viruses. When preliminary clinical trials demonstrated its efficacy, the treatment earned interim approval in both Canada and the United States.

The breakthrough resulted from years of hard work and targeted collaboration centred at the University of British Columbia (UBC). A new technology developed at a UBC lab in 2012 made it possible for researchers to swiftly analyze individual antibodies and identify their distinct roles. The discovery inspired two of the researchers to start AbCellera and the company quickly attracted the attention of the global biotechnology community.

To refine the technology, AbCellera hired researchers from a range of fields and secured funding from several partners, including the Government of Canada, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Murray McCutcheon
Murray McCutcheon, Ph.D., VP, Corporate Development, AbCellera Biologics

“From the beginning, AbCellera’s goal was to accelerate the process of developing effective treatments using antibodies,” says Murray McCutcheon, Ph.D., the company’s VP, Corporate Development. “Our process follows an entirely new path, one that involves advanced immunology, protein chemistry, performance computing and machine learning.”

In February 2020, AbCellera acquired a blood sample from one of the first American patients to recover from COVID‑19. Using its proprietary process, AbCellera quickly screened five million immune cells in the sample and identified approximately 500 that made the antibodies that had helped to neutralize the virus. To produce a treatment based on this finding, the company partnered with Eli Lilly, an American pharmaceutical company, in March. By year’s end, more than 1 million doses had been ordered.

“As a Canadian company, we’re certainly proud to contribute to the global fight against COVID‑19,” says McCutcheon. “I think we’re even more excited, though, by what this means for the future.”

AbCellera’s technology reflects broader scientific progress widely expected to usher in a new era of drug development. The ability to identify specific antibodies and to use them to manufacture therapeutics is one of many important innovations that could dramatically improve healthcare.

“Multinational partnerships between researchers, governments and the private sector drive progress in this area,” says McCutcheon. “Just as COVID‑19 ignores borders, so too must the effort to develop effective therapeutics.”

Early on, AbCellera directed much of its research toward diseases such as Ebola and SARS. The company worked with Canada’s Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) to refine its business model and to identify potential partnerships with foreign pharmaceutical firms.

Thanks in part to these efforts, AbCellera doubled its gross revenues in each of the last two years and attracted more than $105 million in additional funding in May 2020. The company now employs more than 200 people.

“The rapid development of COVID‑19 therapies and vaccines is just the beginning,” says McCutcheon. “AbCellera is now working towards solutions to some of the biggest challenges in human health, including cancer and neurodegenerative diseasesFootnote1.”

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