Hitting the brakes on asthma

30 March 2023

A shared focus on antibody therapies has underpinned the highly successful and long-standing commercial partnership between SA Pathology’s Centre for Cancer Biology (CCB) and biotechnology company, CSL Behring Australia – it’s a research partnership spanning more than 20 years.

Initially centred on developing a unique antibody produced by CCB to treat some forms of leukaemia, in the years since the research collaboration with CSL has expanded to include other antibodies and therapeutic targets.

Antibody therapies

Once an emerging field, antibodies are now highly trusted, effective and safe therapeutics with a wide range of applications. Not surprisingly, antibodies are currently one of the most popular drugs being approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

SA Pathology’s Professor Angel Lopez and Dr Tim Hercus, and the broader research team at CCB, have done extensive work in developing antibodies for use in research and, potentially, in the clinic.  

“Most antibodies don’t do anything interesting, but occasionally you get one that does something really interesting,” Tim said.

There’s an incredible gulf between what researchers discover and invent in the lab and getting a drug into the clinic, which is why SA Pathology recognises pharmaceutical partners like CSL as being vital to enable discoveries to reach patients.

“We’ve worked on two major antibodies with CSL; the first is an antibody that we discovered and with CSL recognised its potential and did the work to make it into a potential therapeutic product.

“The second is a CSL antibody that blocks a family of receptors, so not just one, but three at once,” Tim said. This antibody holds strong promise in the treatment of asthma.

Revolutionary asthma treatment

Angel explains, “Asthma is an inflammatory disease, which means there are cells in the blood that attack the body, and in asthma, the part of the body these cells are attacking is the lungs. The reason they attack the lung is that they’re revved up, super activated and really nasty, as well as a little bit blind – hurting ourselves.

“This antibody switches them off - it effectively applies the brakes. The cells are still there, we’re not wiping them out because if you do you might facilitate infection, but they are better controlled and less revved up.”

“The big thing is you could get away from long-term use of steroids, and some people don't respond to steroids anyway, so we are very excited about this current project,” Angel said.

The research timeline from discovery to having an approved drug is measured in years rather than months. In this case, after 5-years of development in the laboratory, the pathway was further delayed due to the impact of COVID-19 on clinical trials. The antibody is now in phase one clinical trials in the United Kingdom, and we all have our fingers crossed.

One of the challenges with the pre-clinical development of this antibody was that the antibody was very specific, and only bound the human version of the target receptors. To address this, SA Pathology developed a transgenic model that expressed the human target to allow the action of the antibody to be tested.

It was the critical tool that CSL needed for the necessary pre-clinical toxicity studies.

“There was a lot of pre-clinical studies that had to be done; CSL took the tools that we developed here in South Australia overseas, they amped it up and got it ready for the studies.

“It’s a fantastic symbiotic relationship; we get a lot of support from CSL, they give us lots of capabilities and they're able to take those next steps to bring concepts alive, it’s an extremely complex process, it's really quite remarkable,” Tim said.

Tim and Angel say another key benefit of SA Pathology’s partnership with CSL is working with fellow collaborators from across the globe.

“We have monthly Zoom meetings and it’s all science, it’s pure collaboration,” Tim said.

This collaboration isn’t showing any signs of slowing down, and SA Pathology values this partnership and the impact it enables for patients across the world.

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