'We've never moved at this speed before:' $120 billion pharma giant Eli Lilly just teamed up with a biotech startup to fight the coronavirus pandemic
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- Eli Lilly is jumping into the race to develop an effective drug to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
- The $120 billion drugmaker is best known for its diabetes treatments. Lilly inked an agreement Thursday with the private Canadian life sciences company AbCellera.
- The goal is to have an antibody therapy ready to begin clinical testing by the end of July, AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen told Business Insider.
- "We've never moved at this speed before," Eli Lilly Chief Scientific Officer Dan Skovronsky told Business Insider. "I'm not sure any company ever has, but I think if there's one situation that demands speed and demands extraordinary effort, it's the COVID-19 pandemic."
- Lilly joins many other drugmakers in researching treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus, which has infected more than 125,000 people and killed nearly 5,000. Other industry leaders involved in COVID-19 research include Gilead Sciences, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Regeneron.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Eli Lilly is joining many of its drug industry peers in the hunt for an effective coronavirus treatment.
The $120 billion pharmaceutical giant finalized a collaboration with AbCellera, a private Canadian life sciences company, on Thursday.
The goal is to start testing an antibody therapy designed to fight COVID-19 in humans by the end of July. Antibody therapies seek to replicate what the immune system does naturally in fighting a virus - creating a protein specifically designed to seek out and bind to the invading virus.
"We've never moved at this speed before," Dan Skovronsky, Eli Lilly's chief scientific officer, told Business Insider. "I'm not sure any company ever has, but I think if there's one situation that demands speed and demands extraordinary effort, it's the COVID-19 pandemic."
Bloomberg News reported on the collaboration earlier on Thursday.
Lilly joins several other drugmakers in the sprint to develop treatments or a vaccine for this coronavirus. Other industry leaders involved in COVID-19 research include Gilead Sciences, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and Regeneron.
Skovronsky described Lilly and AbCellera as "perfectly complementary" in their skillsets. The life sciences company AbCellera specializes in speedily discovering antibodies using its technology. Lilly brings the scale and resources of a large pharma company that can quickly mass-produce antibodies.
AbCellera's approach uses what are called microfluidic devices, machines about the size of a credit card. It expedites a process normally done by scientists on a benchtop by a magnitude of 100 times.
"It's like a shrink gun," AbCellera CEO Carl Hansen told Business Insider. "You've shrunk down the assays to a very tiny reactor, about a nanoliter in volume, and on a single device you can do about 200,000 of those measurements in a single day."
That technology has taken a process that typically takes researchers weeks and made it possible to complete it in a single afternoon, Hansen said.
The entire collaboration has happened with a speed rarely seen in the highly regulated drug industry. Inking a big pharma collaboration can take at least several months. It took roughly 10 days for Lilly and AbCellera to reach a basic agreement on their collaboration and get moving, Hansen said.
AbCellera had an all-hands meeting for its 117 employees when the first patient with COVID-19 appeared in the US, deciding to prioritize its work on the outbreak.
On February 25, the biotech received a blood sample from a recovered coronavirus patient. By March 2, the company had generated a large panel of human antibodies against the virus, identifying more than 500 candidates from that sample.
Hansen said it is "extremely likely" there are potent neutralizers of this novel coronavirus within that group of antibody candidates.
The next steps will be taking those candidates and converting them from genetic sequence into proteins. They will then ship those to investigators at the National Institutes of Health, who will conduct lab testing on their ability to neutralize the virus at the root of this pandemic. Hansen said AbCellera has moved about half of the antibodies into proteins so far.
In parallel, AbCellera and Lilly will work to identify which antibodies are best suited to develop and manufacture as a therapeutic product. Their potential to be turned into a therapy can largely be analyzed computationally, Skovronsky said.
"If you make a lot of this antibody, does it fall out of solution? Is it unstable?," Skovronsky said. "Things that might not matter so much in life, where you have cells pumping out all the time, but would be a showstopper for making it into a drug."
The antibodies that do well on both metrics - that show good potency and have the characteristics to be turned into a drug - will then go forward into testing.
"If you work in biotech and biopharma, this is why you're in the game," Hansen said. "You want technologies that make a difference and step up when it matters."
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