Researchers from VIB have shown that llama antibodies can protect against COVID-19 in lab animals. To further develop these antibodies into a medicine, VIB established a new start-up, ExeVir Bio. The new company will start testing the drug in COVID-19 patients in the coming months. The scientists currently target spring 2021 as starting point for the therapy’s widespread use.
(Llama Winter ©Tim Coppens)
VIB technology platform as foundation
The research was performed by the teams of Prof. Xavier Saelens and Prof. Nico Callewaert of the VIB-UGent Center for Medical Biotechnology, with the help of VIB’s drug discovery team (VIB Discovery Sciences) and national and international scientific collaborators. To achieve the breakthrough, the scientists used the VIB technology platform to generate specific antibodies in llamas against a particular protein. In this case, the Spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the protein used by the virus to enter the human cell.
Xavier Saelens explains: “The antibodies of the llama block the binding of the viral protein to the human cell. This prevents the virus from entering human cells and thus multiplying in the human body. The effect of this is that the infected person does not progress to the serious form of the disease that everyone fears. ”
His colleague Nico Callewaert adds: “In the meantime, we have tested the efficacy against COVID-19 and the stability of the antibodies in laboratory animals with positive results. An additional advantage of these antibodies is that we can produce them in large quantities. ”
From invention to medicine
Now, it comes down to converting the antibodies into a drug that can be tested in clinical trials. To this end, an intense collaboration was already started in April this year with the biopharmaceutical company UCB. The project immediately received the support of the Flemish Minister of Science and Innovation Hilde Crevits, who released a budget to finance the first steps of drug development. This pandemic rapidly brought together important players, each of which makes a specific contribution to the testing and production of the drug.
To further finance the development of the drug, VIB set up a new start-up, found investors and hired the management team. The new startup is now a fact: ExeVir Bio. With the help of Fund + as lead investor, € 23 million was raised from a consortium of investors, including V-Bio Ventures, FPIM, UCB Ventures, and some Belgian family offices. This investment will be used to test the drug for safety and efficacy (Phase I and II) in COVID-19 patients. The manufacturing of the drug is supported by UCB and is already at an advanced stage. Clinical trials will start in a few months and it is anticipated that the drug will be made available in the course of 2021.
Jérôme Van Biervliet, managing director of VIB, also director at ExeVir Bio, sees this work as a real breakthrough: “The preclinical research has shown that the therapy could work in both infected and non-infected people. This allows healthcare providers or doctors who are most exposed to infected patients (general practitioners and hospital staff) to be protected against COVID-19 or variants of the virus. We live on hope! ”