CBR-SBME Summer Students Visit AbCellera!

By Amardeep Singh Sekhon, Undergraduate Summer Student, Shih Lab

In the growing field of immunotherapy, it may turn out that we as human beings might hold the cure for dementia or HIV. How? Our bodies are capable of making more than billions of unique antibodies and any one of these could unlock a potentially life-saving treatment. But how do we find that one therapeutic antibody out of all the other billions? AbCellera Biologics, a biotechnology firm, has the answer.

On July 19th, 2019, summer research students at the UBC Centre for Blood Research and School of Biomedical Engineering were given the opportunity to tour AbCellera Biologics, located at Cambie Village in Vancouver. Originating from the Hansen Lab in the Michael Smith Laboratories at UBC, AbCellera specializes in the use of a novel microfluidic platform to identify potential therapeutic antibodies from a sample containing millions of B-cells.

Taryn Haggerstone welcoming summer students to AbCellera

Upon arriving at the facility, we were greeted by Taryn Haggerstone, a member of the operations and administration team at AbCellera, where we had the opportunity to learn about the company’s history and how it operates as an enterprise. What is most fascinating about this company is that most of its business is not from the manufacturing of biological products, but rather its work in identifying hundreds of possible human antibodies that could be implemented in novel therapeutic treatments. Most of AbCellera’s partners are pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer and Merck, leading R&D initiatives in immunotherapeutics. Despite only a small number of antibody therapeutics being available on the market in North America, AbCellera shows great promise in increasing this number in the coming future and unlocking many new treatments for rare diseases.

Summer students having a snack before networking sessions

The tour of the facility and the overview of the underlying process of antibody discovery were led by Dylan Neid, an engineer in charge of the microfluidic devices and robotics at AbCellera, and Dr. Emilie Lameignère, a senior research scientist in biophysics. Essentially, the antibody discovery process at AbCellera starts off by immunizing an organism with a known antigen or pathogen. Then, scientists and technicians harvest a sample of B-cells (white blood cells that secrete antibodies) and screen each and every cell, selecting for B-cells that secrete antibodies with the right binding properties. After that, each screened B-cell is genetically sequenced using specialized technology, which allows them to rapidly express hundreds of antibodies. As captivating as this seems, AbCellera can complete this process in a matter of hours using the microfluidic screening platform, compared to the conventional technology, which takes days or even months to perform!

Dr. Emilie Lameignère (left) hosting a round table networking session

Following the tour of all the laboratories, all of the summer students were invited to have a snack (which was more of a lunch than an actual snack!), during which we had the opportunity to speak with employees from each of the teams at AbCellera, from Cell Screening and Engineering to Bioinformatics. During our 5-minute discussion with Dr. Wei Wei (a research scientist in immunization technologies), Jordan Kowalski (a mathematician focusing on software development), as well as Dylan Neid and Dr. Emilie Lameignère, we were able to learn more about their background, how they came to work at AbCellera, and what role they have in their current position. After speaking with all of the team members, many of whom had a background that was not related to genetics or immunology, it was clear that AbCellera hires individuals based on their potential fit within the company dynamic, rather than based on education and experience. Their philosophy is that an individual with baseline experience in a given discipline can be trained to become proficient in a specific role if they manage to work well with the rest of the employees. This may be unconventional, but for AbCellera, it is clearly working given their current successes in the field of immunotherapeutics.

The CBR-SBME summer students would like to extend a big thank you to AbCellera and its team members for being so welcoming and giving us the opportunity to tour the facility ­– they have truly given us an idea of what a career in science could look like and the many avenues we can take to work in the field of biotechnology. We now have a much better understanding about the work being done by AbCellera, as well as the advances currently taking place in the new field of immunotherapeutics. To find out more about AbCellera and its career opportunities, please visit https://www.abcellera.com/, or just ask a summer student!