Vancouver biotech company AbCellera is undergoing a significant expansion to broaden its antibody research following a massive financial boost from making more shares available on the stock market.
They’re hiring more than 70 positions in Vancouver right now as part of a plan to invest in people and technology at their Olympic Village headquarters.
“We’re really aiming to redefine the scale, scope, and speed of how antibody drugs are discovered,” Chief Operating Officer Veronique Lecault told Daily Hive in a phone interview.
“Ultimately, we can … bring drugs to patients faster.”
The company netted $555.5 million by selling nearly 28 million shares in its December initial public offering, smashing expectations of raising $250 million. They’ve made headlines this year for winning large sums of federal funding for their research and for devising a COVID-19 therapy that’s been approved for use by Health Canada and in the United States.
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At AbCellera, scientists scan for existing antibodies that might be appropriate to use in drugs.
Antibodies are animals’ natural weapons against infection. When we’re infected with a virus or bacteria, our immune system works over several days to craft customized Y-shaped proteins that latch onto the germ in question and destroy it.
“Finding therapeutic antibodies from nature is like having this massive treasure trove and then you just have to first break the code to access it,” Lecault said.
The company can’t manufacture the monoclonal antibodies locally right now, and Lecault said there’s nowhere in Canada with the facilities to do that. But AbCellera plans to one day produce its own antibodies here in Vancouver.
For now it partners with other pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly, with whom it produced bamlanivimab, a COVID-19 therapy derived from the real antibodies of a COVID-19 survivor.
But although bamlanivimab has been approved for use by Canada’s federal health regulator, AbCellera’s home province of BC still hasn’t given it the green light for use.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said earlier this month that’s because it’s still not clear which patients bamlanivimab works best for. That’s important to find out because undergoing treatment with bamlanivimab is a fairly involved process.
“It’s not just a poke in the arm. It’s an hour-long infusion with a two-hour period of time where you have to be observed,” Henry said during her February 8 news conference.
The province has set up a clinical care reference group that will study bamlanivimab more so doctors can know when to administer it during a COVID-19 infection and clearly tell patients the risks and benefits of it.
Lecault acknowledged the hurdles for bamlanivimab in BC have been a challenge, but noted it usually takes about 10 years to bring a new drug to market. More research that’s shared with the public will be of benefit in the long-term, she added.
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AbCellera’s COVID-19 research has received the most attention during the pandemic, but the company is also searching for antibody therapies for cancer, neurological disorders, pain disorders, and infectious diseases.
Being based in Vancouver means it can draw on graduates from local universities as it grows its staff. The company sits at about 200 employees right now, but it’s expanding as it sets up an anchor headquarters in the city, Lecault said.
“We have an amazing pool of talent,” she said. “We have great universities. So there’s lots of well-trained people coming out.”
She encouraged job-seekers to see if an opening suits them. They are looking for several scientific research positions, and there are also openings in communications, human resources, and other business areas.
“Sometimes someone may think ‘well, I’m not a biologist so maybe I shouldn’t work for a biotech company,’ but we need diverse backgrounds,” Lecault said. “Our edge is based on integration of multiple disciplines.”