At the first sign of the pandemic, AbbVie began evaluating ways to help, including accelerating discovery efforts and external collaborations.
Searching for ways to combat COVID-19
Every day for months, Teresa Ng has been receiving pop-up notifications of new research reports related to COVID-19 on her computer.
In a way, this is good. She is getting to know her target better every day.
Ng is a 20-year veteran of AbbVie, where she is a principal research scientist and has helped discover and develop antiviral therapies for both hepatitis C virus (HCV) and HIV. Today, she’s bringing that experience to bear during an unprecedented global pandemic. That’s because Ng, like so many other scientists around the world, is trying to answer the call of a lifetime. She’s part of the AbbVie research team that’s looking for a way to combat COVID-19.
To discover the antibody and help speed up development, Harbour BioMed used a type of mouse that has been engineered to produce antibodies that are humanized, which means they are safe and effective for humans. One candidate that has emerged from these efforts has shown the ability to neutralize SARS-CoV-2 in human cells grown in the lab.1
Initial testing was performed at Harbour BioMed in collaboration with Utrecht University and Erasmus Medical Center. AbbVie has helped with further characterization and a fast-track development plan to move this antibody to clinical studies as soon as possible.
“The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has highlighted the importance of understanding coronavirus biology,” said Berend-Jan Bosch, Ph.D., associate professor, research leader at Utrecht University. “The collaboration with AbbVie provides an excellent opportunity to translate our research into a clinical candidate with great potential for advancing the fight against this disease.”
There’s more than one possible way to discover an antibody to stop SARS-CoV-2. For example, AbbVie is also looking at the potential for human blood cells to naturally produce the best possible antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.
Cellular and molecular biologist Tatyana Dekhtyar works on potential treatments to fight COVID-19 in AbbVie’s labs in Lake County, Illinois, U.S. Photo Cred: AbbVie
“When we heard about the pandemic in the early days, we realized that we had an opportunity to work with our existing technology to produce antibodies to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Jane Seagal, senior principal research scientist at AbbVie who leads the team that works on internal antibody discovery efforts for SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses using convalescent patient samples, which are samples from patients who have recovered from COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of pressure to find an antibody that will be successful because it’s so urgently needed to help save lives, and as a scientist, I couldn’t imagine a more important application of our expertise.”
An antibody answer to the COVID-19 problem is particularly appealing because of what scientists have learned about SARS-CoV-2. Identification of antibodies that can target both SARS-CoV-2 and potential future pandemic coronaviruses is challenging but might be possible. Many other coronaviruses share a highly similar target region for an antibody to attach. SARS-CoV-2 also mutates much less frequently than other RNA viruses, like the flu virus.
Cellular and molecular biologist Liangjun Lu examines his work in AbbVie’s labs in Lake County, Illinois, U.S. Photo Cred: AbbVie
“That’s promising news,” Ng added. “Because this suggests that an antibody treatment might work across different coronaviruses, which means we’re working on possible treatments for COVID-19 and future coronaviruses we don’t even know about yet.”
Tom Hudson, M.D., senior vice president of R&D and chief scientific officer at AbbVie, sees partnerships as key to beating COVID-19, and is encouraged by the speed and urgency with which different organizations have come together.
“The biomedical community needed to work together to find a path to prioritize clinical studies of promising drugs,” he said. “That’s exactly what we hope to accomplish with our partnerships.”