Lilly's Covid-19 partner AbCellera is taking a new antibody into the clinic in the hopes it can tackle all variants
As the virus behind the Covid-19 pandemic continues to mutate into several variants of concern, the company behind Eli Lilly’s bamlanivimab antibody treatment is looking to stay ahead of the curve.
AbCellera is pushing forward with a new monoclonal antibody candidate for Covid-19 that it says can neutralize all currently known variants, moving the program known as LY-CoV1404 into its first clinical trials, the Vancouver-based biotech said Tuesday morning. The program will join Lilly’s ongoing Blaze-4 study where it will be evaluated in mild to moderate Covid-19 cases.
CEO Carl Hansen didn’t say whether or not the duo plan to eventually move the newer antibody into more severe Covid-19 patients, but emphasized the need to administer antibody treatments as quickly as possible.
“Unfortunately at this point, the antibodies that have been tested in patients once they’re acute and hospitalized, essentially all antibodies have shown little, if any, efficacy,” Hansen said. “I think one of the key things the scientific community has learned is that antibody therapies are remarkably effective at keeping people out of the hospital, keeping them from progressing to illness and keeping them from death.”
LY-CoV1404 will be tested as a monotherapy and in combination with the Lilly cocktail that’s currently authorized by the FDA — bamlanivimab and etesevimab, Hansen added. There’s also the potential to administer the new antibody as a subcutaneous injection rather than IV infusion, which would ease the burden on some communities that had needed to set up infusion centers.
Lilly first teamed up with AbCellera back in March 2020 just as the Covid-19 pandemic started affecting everyday life in the US. The biotech had been able to identify a potential therapy rather quickly thanks to its acquisition of a blood sample from a Covid-19 patient the previous month.
Their partnership first bore fruit with bamlanivimab, a monoclonal antibody discovered by AbCellera and scaled up in manufacturing by Lilly. Given the huge unknowns about Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic, Lilly and AbCellera began testing the treatment in hospitalized patients as well as those not hospitalized, much like other companies investigating potential therapies.
Though bamlanivimab showed poor results in trials for more severe cases, the antibody proved effective in keeping patients out of the hospital and earned an EUA as a monotherapy last November. The pair then secured another EUA for bamlanivimab in combination with etesevimab in February.
As the number of coronavirus variants grew, however, concerns over bamlanivimab’s effectiveness began to mount. Several states stopped giving out the monotherapy version of the antibody in March before the US government, in partnership with Lilly, stopped distribution altogether later that month. The cocktail with etesevimab remains authorized and in circulation.
That’s where AbCellera hopes the new antibody will be able to step in. AbCellera had been working on finding newer candidates to deal with the variants as bamlanivimab development proceeded, Hansen said, and he believes they’ve found the key with LY-CoV1404.
This antibody works by targeting a part of the coronavirus spike protein that has remained the same in each of the variants. AbCellera noted it identified two specific amino acid positions that have only mutated about 0.027% of the time, as of April 2021, which allows it to neutralize each of the coronavirus variants that first emerged in the UK, South Africa, Brazil, California and New York, Hansen said.
All of the available Covid-19 info allowed AbCellera to find this spike protein region relatively quickly, he added. And even though it’s difficult to predict whether or not this region will mutate in the future, Hansen said, the new antibody will have a lot of “staying power.”
“A year ago we knew very little about the virus and about the immune response to it,” Hansen said. “If we found that another variant came out, we believe we are, I would say, uniquely positioned to evolve with the pandemic and find the next antibody therapy.”
The news from AbCellera comes as their rivals at Regeneron continue to make progress with Covid-19 antibodies as well. Back in March, the FDA said that the Regeneron cocktail had proved least susceptible to variants among authorized antibody treatments, and the company is pushing forward with prophylactic trials.