September 16, 2020 / All Stories

Helping solve for the next COVID

Working to treat diseases that don’t even exist yet.

Michelle Szklaruk, an R&D Technician, stands among 120,000 compounds. As one of the first steps in the drug discovery process, scientists will screen compounds for their potential.

Tackling potential future pandemics

Armed with a culture of tackling big problems and an expertise in virology and both small molecule and antibody therapeutics, AbbVie scientists are working to understand future emerging global pandemics.

When COVID-19 stunned the world, the freezers inside AbbVie’s labs swung open.

“While most everyone at AbbVie and the world was working remotely, we had teams in our labs pulling compounds and sending them to be tested to see if any had the potential to fight COVID-19,” said Steve Elmore, Ph.D., Vice President, Drug Discovery and Science Technology at AbbVie. “These teams are our front-line, working in shifts often seven days a week. Very early on they were working to identify appropriate compounds.”

AbbVie scientists like John Williams have access to a compound library of more than two million compounds. Many of these are from scientific research that while did not result in a new treatment, could help future scientific research.

Biologists, chemists, and bioinformatic teams worked all hours, poring over the latest scientific literature as it was published. AbbVie teams sent hundreds of compounds to our collaborating research and academic partners so the best minds inside and outside of AbbVie can better understand future global pandemics and hopefully how to treat them.

AbbVie scientists bring decades of expertise in virology and drug discovery to the fight, and both could be the building blocks for the next pandemic treatment – whether that is in five years or 20 years down the road.

A new drug starts with the scientists and researchers in Discovery where a global team of more than 1,400 work to learn as much as possible about a disease or virus. This includes researching biological targets, conducting studies in cells, tissues, and animal models and determining whether compounds that modulate these targets can be turned into a medicine.

AbbVie teams sent hundreds of compounds to our collaborating research and academic partners so the best minds inside and outside of AbbVie can better understand future global pandemics.

Because while COVID-19’s arrival seemed sudden, it wasn’t to scientists in the field – both Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), first reported in 2003, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first reported in 2012, are also caused by coronaviruses and originated in animals.

Multiple solutions will be needed to combat the next emerging infections, so AbbVie is working on small and large molecule efforts, leveraging internal capabilities, knowledge, and expertise, and partnering with leading academic institutions.

Nora Ramales, who works in the R&D Chemical Supply Operations organization, is part of the team that provides compounds to scientists in AbbVie labs located all over the world including Worcester, Massachusetts; Redwood City, California; and Ludwigshafen, Germany.

One example is researching possible ways to disrupt virus replication and the viral-host interactions that are essential for the viral life cycle. For an infection to take root and spread, the virus must infect a host cell which is then converted into a virus factory to create new viruses.

AbbVie is also creating and building a large library of antibodies to possibly identify those that can bind to and neutralize future viruses.

On the collaboration front, AbbVie recently combined forces with Harvard Medical School to study and develop novel therapies against emergent viral infections, with a focus on those caused by coronaviruses and by viruses that lead to hemorrhagic fever. This collaboration is focused on five areas that address different therapeutic modalities, including immunity and immunopathology, host targeting for antivirals, antibody therapeutics, small molecule therapeutics, and translational development.

“We know there are top scientific minds in the industry both inside and outside our labs,” said Tom Hudson, M.D., Senior Vice President R&D, and Chief Scientific Officer. “Together we can learn even more about viral diseases and the best way to treat them, so we are all better prepared for future potential outbreaks.”

AbbVie scientists can request compounds in liquid, solid or powder forms which are preserved at all temperatures. Here, Eric Rice, an R&D technician, sorts through a tray of frozen compounds inside a room-sized freezer.

In our antibody research, teams are working on a monoclonal antibody in partnership with Harbour BioMed, Erasmus Medical Center and Utrecht University. The research efforts in this arena are being led at AbbVie by Jochen Salfeld, Ph.D., Vice President, Immunology and Virology. Jochen is no stranger to this type of work – as he led the team that discovered and developed one of the first monoclonal antibodies over 20 years ago.

This collaboration aims to develop a fully human, neutralizing antibody— discovered by our partners in genetically modified mice that can produce fully humanized antibodies — that intends to target the conserved domain of the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2.

“It’s our culture to tackle big problems,” Hudson said. “The world has never seen a crisis of this magnitude and our R&D team is taking the challenge to prepare for the next COVID personally. It is amazing the work done so far at AbbVie and I have never seen our team and the entire health ecosystem pull together so rapidly. Next time, we will be better prepared.”

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Sheila Galloro
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