What are the reasons that prompted the foundation of AbCellera and what is your vision for its future?
The company was founded out of my academic research group. I was a professor at UBC for over a decade, working on technologies across different disciplines - such as genomics, engineering and computation - to enable better experiments for research. We put together powerful tools to look at cells, and after many years of thinking where that technology would best be applied, we realized that analyzing and decoding immune systems was going to be the ‘killer’ app. We then looked at its applicability in the biologics space, and realized that while biotech was rapidly advancing, the core technology had essentially remained unchanged over the past 30 years. Hence, we created an engine that would be much more efficient at discovering antibody-based medicines. On a personal note, I was drawn to found AbCellera because I simply believe there is no space more interesting to work on than biotech - I know it is the future, and I wanted to be a part of it.
How would you explain what it is that AbCellera does to a non-PhD audience?
The process of discovering and developing new medicines can be divided into three steps. The first step, “product ideation”, includes figuring out the right target and what you want a medicine to do to that target Once you have done that, the next step is to make an actual molecule that has all the properties that you want and that can be developed into a drug - this is “product creation”. The third step is about testing it to make sure that it works - in our industry it’s known as ”clinical development”.
AbCellera is focussed on the product creation step for medicines that are built from antibodies - for that wider audience out there, antibodies are proteins that your immune system makes and can be developed into precise and effective medicines.
We believe there’s been a lack of investment in the technologies and capabilities to make it easier, faster and more efficient to discover and develop antibody medicines. We have spent the last decade working to build an engine that can bring new antibody medicines to the clinic with greater speed and probability of success. Our strategy and business model is very different from other companies in our industry. Instead of building one product, we build the capabilities to make many products.
What was AbCellera’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic?
Having an antibody discovery engine that is able to work at scale, handle data, and use experimental techniques that are orders of magnitude faster, provides considerable advantages in speed and in quality, as witnessed during pandemic.
When Covid-19 hit, we had already been working on it with the U.S. government on a programme for pandemic response. The idea was simple; if someone becomes infected with a virus, you get a blood sample, you search through that sample for the immune cells that make an antibody that could be developed into a therapy, and you deliver that therapy to patients to prevent and treat infections. When Covid-19 reached North America, we were ready to put our platform into action. We received a blood sample from the first patient to recover from COVID-19 in North America, discovered an antibody that would neutralize the virus, and with our partner, Eli Lilly, initiated a clinical trial.. This happened in under three months - an absolute record in drug development. We demonstrated that our approach worked and that it worked faster than anything else in the industry, as ours was the first therapeutic available. We then did this again when the virus mutated, developing an antibody called bebtelovimab; until a few months ago, it was the only drug in the world that worked against all variants. Our antibody therapies have been used to treat an estimated 2.5 million people, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives.
And where to from here, what is the role you want to play now that biotech is transforming faster than ever before?
We set out a decade ago to build the world’s most powerful, flexible and scalable engine for making antibody therapies. In the immediate future we are going to finish that job. We are now working on the last step, which would enable us to manufacture the antibody therapies we discover.
Over the coming years, we want to use that platform to level the playing field for innovators that do not have access to top-notch technology and capabilities so that we can help create a more vibrant ecosystem for innovators. We also want to prove that our technology can open up new therapeutic opportunities that have been out of reach for lack of capabilities; areas like T-cell engager platforms for example, which have immense potential in the fight against cancer.
Through these developments, we will continue to build our diverse portfolio of stakes in antibody medicines, and in the very long run - but hopefully during my lifetime - to become a top 10 biotech/tech company in the world.
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