Eli Lilly teams with antibody upstart AbCellera in coronavirus hunt
As the Covid-19 outbreak reaches official pandemic levels and begins to disrupt US life in unprecedented ways, Eli Lilly is joining the hunt for a drug that can treat the infection.
The legacy pharma — not typically known for a rapid R&D engine — is teaming with a small but well-connected antibody startup out of British Columbia called AbCellera. AbCellera said they had already isolated a little over 500 potentially therapeutic antibodies from the blood of one of the US patients who recovered from the virus and will work with Eli Lilly on testing those and turning the best ones into a drug. The NIH and the Vaccine Research Centers will allow provide support.
“We are pulling out all the stops,” AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen told Endpoints News. “We formed a plan at Eli Lilly and the objective is to have the first in-human testing by late July. If we are successful that would be a world record.”
AbCellera and Lilly join a long list of drugmakers rapidly searching for a treatment. Other companies, such as Regeneron, are also hoping to have first in-human testing by the summer, but it’s not clear how rapidly a treatment could be deployed even after going through Phase I. Gilead’s experimental antiviral remdesivir, originally developed for Ebola, is already in testing.
AbCellera is only 7 years old, but they’ve already scored discovery partnerships with Novartis, GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, Pfizer and Gilead, along with a list of smaller biotechs, including Denali, Harbour Biomed, and Autolus. In 2018, they were one of four groups named to pandemic response project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The goal was to build a platform that could create field-ready antiviral within 60 days of isolating a virus.
AbCellera’s role was antibody screening and refining. The company is built on miniature assays Hansen says allows them to rapidly screen the blood of infected animals or humans for antibodies against the virus, and then select and engineer the best one.
Hansen said AbCellera moved quickly after the coronavirus outbreak began. In January, they began preparing the proper reagents. The next month, they acquired a blood sample from one of the first patients to recover from the coronavirus. They then screened the blood for antibodies, turning up thousands of results, and whittled those down to 500.
”That capability has been building for three years,” Hansen said, referring to the DARPA program. “We’ve pressure tested it three times.”
AbCellera and Lilly will share development costs until a product is found, after which Lilly will fully cover development manufacturing and distribution.
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