With a first-of-its-kind GMP facility, AbCellera Biologics is building the future of Canadian biotech, right here in BC

The newly-announced 130,000-square-foot Vancouver facility aims to accelerate the development of antibody-based therapies for an array of medical conditions.

Two months after breaking ground on its new Vancouver headquarters, BC biotech giant AbCellera announced that its building a 130,000-square-foot Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) manufacturing facility for the production of therapeutic antibodies, a first of its kind in Canada.

(GMP is a system and set of standards designed to ensure quality and consistently minimize the risks involved in the production of products.)

AbCellera gave hints in April that this facility was in the works, but wasn’t willing to share details. “We weren’t ready, then,” said Murray McCutcheon, vice president of corporate development at AbCellera, in an interview with Vancouver Tech Journal, “but we are ready now.”

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McCutcheon called the news an important milestone and said the facility will help accelerate his company’s programs, as well as reduce risk in the process. “It's going to enable us to make the antibody therapies that we're already discovering, and help us bridge the gap that occurs now in drug development, and help us hold the hands of our partners further along the drug discovery and development pipeline,” he said.

Led by chief executive Dr. Carl Hansen, AbCellera was spun-out of UBC in 2012. The company’s technology speeds up the process of isolating and identifying antibodies that people create to fight infections.

Late last year, AbCellera became Canada’s most valuable biotech company after a record-breaking IPO, which saw the firm raise $555.5 million USD. In its most recent 2021 earnings report, the company reported Q1 2021 revenue of $203 million USD (up from $5 million in 2020), fueled by the success of its partnership with Eli Lilly & Co. for an antibody-based COVID-19 treatment called bamlanivimab.

In addition to the new facility, AbCellera is building an internal Chemistry Manufacturing and Controls (CMC) development organization, a team of scientists and engineers responsible for developing the manufacturing processes for antibody therapeutics.

The CMC group, combined with the company’s GMP manufacturing capabilities and technology, will play a key role in augmenting the company’s ability to move rapidly from discovery to the clinic.

It will also position the company to take more control of what one might call the drug discovery and development stack. McCutcheon used a computer analogy to describe what the new manufacturing capabilities mean for the company. He said start by imagining a computer and all of its components. Then imagine the company ops to create its own chips, build its own factories and run its own stores with the goal being the seamless integration of parts and processes.

In drug discovery, there are lots of different competing standards and approaches, explained McCutcheon. “It’s a bit of a disconnected, disjointed process,” he said. AbCellera has already built an operating system for discovery. “And by integrating manufacturing into that,” he continued, “it's going to just improve that compatibility, connection, success and, ultimately, the drugs that are made.”

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The plan is to build on the company’s accomplishments from the past year, said McCutcheon. “When we look at what AbCellera accomplished last year, we were able to progress from patient sample to clinical trial in 90 days—completely unprecedented,” he explained. “The therapy treatment was authorized within seven months, and has now been delivered to half a million patients.” But the company had to partner with companies and institutions outside of Canada, he notes.

“When we look from a national standpoint, and we look to the federal government's funding commitment for this endeavour,” he said, “we view this as an important stepping stone to improving our national competency, and our ability to not only do innovation here and discover things but also make stuff here—manufacture—and really capture some of those returns from scaled companies here in Canada.” 

The development of the new GMP manufacturing facility is funded in part by a $125.6-million USD grant from the federal government’s Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF).

McCutcheon sees the federal funds as an example of the government taking a longer-term view of the investment required to bolster the biomanufacturing capacity in the country. He called the investment a catalyst for the project, adding, “it's a great example of how a leading company can work together with government to open up new avenues together.”

The new facility, which will house approximately 100 additional employees, will be within walking distance from AbCellera’s recently announced headquarters on 4th Avenue between Columbia and Manitoba Street. The new GMP facility will be built on what is currently a vacant two-acre site, and the planned building will house laboratory, office, GMP protein biologic manufacturing, and warehouse space. Construction will begin later in 2021.

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