January 30, 2018 / All Stories

Immunology at AbbVie: in the lab with Lisa Olson

AbbVie’s vice president of immunology research shares how AbbVie is approaching innovation of next-generation breakthrough therapies for autoimmune diseases.

Lisa Olson, vice president, discovery, Immunology Site Head, Worcester

Personalized medicine is on everyone’s mind today. How is it playing out in immunology?

Lisa Olson: In my lifetime I’ve seen personalized medicine progress from a rudimentary concept to playing a central role in the practice of oncology. In immunology, we’re at the very beginning. I envision a day when a medicine bag will have multiple therapies for a disease and a diagnostic kit to guide the physician on which is best for each patient.

There’s a real need for personalized medicine in immune-mediated diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease. Approximately 30 percent of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients don’t respond to anti-TNF agents1, so their disease is different. Something else is driving it, and we need to understand what that is.

How is AbbVie working to figure out what else may be driving these diseases?

LO: One thing AbbVie has done is team up with nine other pharma companies, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and several non-profits on the Accelerating Medicines Partnership.

Through tissue and blood sample analysis from people with RA and lupus, we’re hoping to identify differences between those with RA who respond to therapies and those who do not, as well as provide a better systems-level understanding of disease mechanisms in both RA and lupus. The ultimate goal of the partnership is to increase the number of new diagnostics and therapies for patients and to reduce the time and cost of developing them. 

What other strategies is AbbVie pursuing to help patients achieve remission of these diseases?

LO: We believe to drive true remission in patients we may need combination therapies. Immune-mediated diseases can be very complex and often operate through complementary pathways, so it’s likely that we may need to inhibit multiple pathways in the body to address them fully. By combining two types of inhibitors, you could potentially have a more significant therapeutic effect on the disease.

What emerging technologies is AbbVie exploring?

LO: We are exploring technologies, such as the antibody drug conjugate, that allow us to be more precise in our immunomodulation. The theory is that by coupling an antibody with an immunosuppressive payload, we may be able to create the effect of a heat-seeking missile in the body targeting only the immune cells that are misbehaving.

For example, steroids are well known and effective drugs used in treating immune-mediated diseases, but they cannot be tolerated in high doses. With an antibody drug conjugate, we could home in on only those immune cells that are in overdrive. The antibody would find and enter a pro-inflammatory cell, release the steroid and turn off the cell like a light switch.

Our scientists are also testing the boundaries of our dual variable domain immunoglobulin (DVD-Ig™) platform, which seeks to enhance the effect of treatment by delivering two antibodies in a single agent. With these compounds, we can potentially provide patients a one-two punch, addressing two pathways that are known to play a role in several inflammatory disorders.

What inspires you and the team at AbbVie?

LO: When I walk through the halls of our Bioresearch Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, I am inspired by the stories from patients whose lives have been changed and transformed by our treatments.

With that in the back of our minds, we keep searching and experimenting to find the next big advancement in science that could lead to treatments for other diseases.

It excites me to say that our pipeline is full of exciting potential treatments that may help bring this vision to life.

Visit the Pipeline section for more information on AbbVie’s focus in Immunology.

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  1. Rubbert-Roth, Andrea et al. Treatment options in patients with rheumatoid arthritis failing initial TNF inhibitor therapy: a critical review. Arthritis Res Ther. 2009; 11(Suppl 1): S1.