Carl Hansen, PhD, CEO of AbCellera

Novartis will use AbCellera’s antibody discovery platform and single-cell screening technology to identify and develop up to 10 targets, through a collaboration whose value was not disclosed—but which the Canadian developer of therapeutic antibodies said today could potentially grow into its largest partnership to date.

“It signals what has been an inflection point in our business model, which is moving from one- or two-target deals towards larger strategic collaborations,” AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen, PhD, told GEN. “Going forward, we intend to double down on this, and to start to structure our deals such that we can provide partners, particularly enabled partners such as Novartis, with extended access so that they can focus on the science, and have better success in bringing therapeutics quickly to patients.”

The antibody programs will include upfront and research fees, as well as payments tied to achieving milestones and royalties on net sales of products.

The companies have not yet said what therapeutic areas the targets will address, though Hansen added, “it would be safe to say that it would touch on things from cardiovascular to oncology and perhaps other areas that perhaps Novartis is working on.” The pharma giant’s therapeutic areas of focus include cardiovascular-metabolic, ophthalmology, respiratory, neuroscience, immunology and dermatology, oncology, as well as cell and gene therapy.

AbCellera’s platform works by obtaining tissue from immunized animals, isolating the B cells that make the antibody. The cells are loaded into microfluidic devices, which comprise over 150,000 individual reaction chambers, each one of which has a closed volume of about 1 nanoliter.

“By isolating that individual cell into a tiny volume, we can concentrate the antibodies that are secreted. And in a place that might take you 100 weeks to generate a reasonable concentration of antibodies, and that cell would long be dead, when you isolate the volume down, you can get that same concentration within less than an hour,” Hansen explained.

AbCellera says it combines that process with high-throughput imaging, fluidic control over the reagent, and machine learning algorithms to isolate the chambers that have the cells that make an antibody of interest—all in one day, versus the three-month timeframe of traditional hybridoma technologies. The sequences of those antibodies can be isolated and verified in about five days.

“We essentially expanded 100x the diversity of the antibodies that can be found from a natural immune system,” Hansen said. “That allows you to either generate antibodies against targets that have been impossible to reach, or it allows you to generate much larger and higher-quality panels of candidates, which translates into better therapeutics, and a mitigated risk in having to spend time in trying to engineer and improve subpar antibodies that are generated by hybridoma.”

30+ discovery programs

Over the past three years, AbCellera says, it has completed more than 30 antibody discovery programs, and has launched partnerships with Autolus Therapeutics, Denali Therapeutics, GlaxoSmithKline, Kodiak Sciences, Merck & Co., Pfizer, Sanofi’s Sanofi Pasteur vaccines unit, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, and an undisclosed “mid-cap public biopharmaceutical company.”

AbCellera has also attracted a grant of undisclosed amount from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to discover monoclonal antibodies against Mycobacterium tuberculosis (Mtb), and launched three antibody discovery collaborations with MassBiologics, the nonprofit vaccine manufacturer run by University of Massachusetts Medical School—the third of which received funding from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

“We want to work broadly and empower as many programs as we can with our partners, both pharma and biotech. We have found that there is a strong appetite for that, and that has allowed us to take the company that was only seven people four years ago, and essentially to grow it to 75 people without financing until last year.”

AbCellera completed a $10 million Series A financing in September 2018, with proceeds intended for accelerated growth of the company’s therapeutic antibody discovery business, including investments to build capacity and integration of advanced technological capabilities spanning computation, protein engineering, and immune repertoire profiling. The company’s only other previous financing was approximately $1 million raised in 2014.

Over the past year, AbCellera has expanded its workforce by 33 people, growing from 42 to 75 staffers. “I expect we’ll be at over 100 by the end of the year,” Hansen said.

Three factors have fueled that growth:

  • The biopharma partnerships, which according to Hansen have seen three years of profitable triple-digit growth, with AbCellera on track for a fourth in 2019.
  • Expansion of R&D and technology, both in terms of performance throughput, speed, and capacity, as well as upstream and downstream technologies like immunization-approach engineering.
  • AbCellera’s acquisition of Lineage Biosciences in August 2018 for an undisclosed price, through which the buyer gained exclusive rights to foundational technology for immune repertoire sequencing.

“We’ve been booting up a substantial R&D effort to start to bring that into our offerings, to expand diversity and also to help clients with areas such as vaccine development,” Hansen said.

As a result, he added, the company is already outgrowing the new headquarters it moved into just last year, and has started looking for additional space. AbCellera outgrew its incubator space at University of British Columbia—the company was founded in 2012 and spun out of research at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories—and moved within Vancouver into a 21,000-square-foot building containing new offices and custom-built labs.

“AbCellera has put in place a next-generation antibody discovery platform that we believe is now definitively the world’s most powerful and effective way to capture the diversity of natural immune responses,” Hansen said. “The industry has recognized the superiority of antibodies that come from natural immune responses, and they’re looking for ways to solve what has been the longstanding problem of the inefficiency and limited flexibility of hybridoma technologies.”

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