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Lilly, Biotech, NIH to Develop Covid-19 Antibodies

SARS-Cov-2 virus

Scanning electron microscope image of SARS-Cov-2 virus, in orange, emerging from cells (NIAID, Flickr)

13 Mar. 2020. Drug maker Eli Lilly and Co., a biotechnology company, and an agency of NIH are collaborating on antibodies for novel coronavirus vaccines and therapies. The work brings together Lilly with biotechnology enterprise AbCellera Biologics Inc. in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and National Institute of of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, or NIAID, part of National Institutes of Health.

The antibodies produced by the collaboration are expected to be part of products to prevent and treat rapidly spreading novel coronavirus infections, code-named Covid-19.  A global case tracking dashboard hosted by Johns Hopkins University says as of today (13 March), more than 137,000 cases are reported in 117 countries, leading to more than 5,000 deaths. In the U.S., 1,268 Covid-19 cases are confirmed, with 40 deaths attributed to the disease.

The agreement aims to extend AbCellera’s work for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, developing a pandemic prevention platform to protect armed forces deployed in the field. This platform identifies DNA- and RNA-based vaccines and treatments that generate antibodies to counteract pathogens faced by service members in remote parts of the world.

AbCellera uses what it calls deep mining of B-cells from the immune system to discover antibodies for preventing and treating diseases caused by a range of viruses and bacteria. B-cells are white blood cells in the immune system that produce antibodies, proteins that directly attack invading pathogens, such as bacteria and parasites. The company’s antibody discovery process combines a number of technologies, beginning with single-cell screening with microfluidics, or lab-on-a-chip devices. AbCellera also uses advanced bioinformatics for further analysis and high-throughput characterization to express hundreds of antibodies.

The company says it screened more than 5 million immune-system cells against a blood sample from one of the first people in the U.S. infected with novel coronavirus. From this screening, AbCellera says it identified some 500 unique human antibody sequences that respond to the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for Covid-19 infections. The next step is to assess the antibody sequences to find those that best neutralize the virus, work expected to include the Vaccine Research Center at NIAID.

“In 11 days” says Carl Hansen, CEO of AbCellera in a joint statement, “we’ve discovered hundreds of antibodies against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the current outbreak, moved into functional testing with global experts in virology, and signed a co-development agreement with one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies.” Hansen adds their discovery represents “by far the world’s largest panel of anti-SAR-CoV-2 antibodies.”

Under the agreement, Lilly, in Indianapolis, and AbCellera will equally share costs of product development, with Lilly responsible for further development, regulatory approvals, manufacturing and distribution. No other financial details of the deal were disclosed.

“We are moving at top speed to create a potential treatment to help patients,” notes Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s chief scientist and president of Lilly Research Laboratories. “While typically a new therapeutic antibody program might take years to get in the clinic, our goal with AbCellera is to be testing potential new therapies in patients within the next four months.”

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