Recombinant Antibody Network Partners with Bristol Myers Squibb to Develop Novel Therapies

The Recombinant Antibody Network (RAN), a consortium comprising research groups from UC San Francisco, the University of Chicago, and the University of Toronto, has entered into a second research collaboration with Celgene that aims to create and develop high-performance recombinant antibodies against diverse targets in human cells.

The first RAN collaboration was launched in 2015 with Celgene, which was later acquired by Bristol Myers Squibb in 2019.

portrait of James Wells
James Wells, PhD

Under the new agreement, led by UCSF’s James Wells, PhD, the company will further invest in the RAN’s state-of-the-art antibody engineering program to expand target discovery from oncology and immunology to include neurology. UCSF Innovation Ventures led the negotiation of the agreement with Celgene, now a fully owned subsidiary of Bristol Myers Squibb, and will manage the collaboration’s activities and licensing.

“This is a spectacular example of how industry and academia can work hand-in-hand to discover new medicines,” said Wells, a co-founder of the RAN and a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry in the UCSF School of Pharmacy. “The RAN project teams include scientists, students, postdocs, and staff at universities collaborating with Bristol Myers Squibb scientists to consult on projects and discuss progress on a monthly basis.”

As one of the world’s largest academic-industry partnerships, the RAN offers unique opportunities for trainees to be involved in cutting-edge research with clinical applications. Additionally, the collaboration provides an opportunity for potential sharing of research performed by both the RAN and Bristol Myers Squibb scientists. Members of the RAN at all three institutions have published dozens of publications resulting from their new innovative science and discovery.

“Our partnership with Bristol Myers Squibb is a testament to the RAN’s ability to produce antibody molecules with a strong therapeutic potential,” said Sachdev Sidhu, PhD, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Toronto and one of the founding members of the RAN. Sidhu leads the Toronto effort and is also a co-founder of the Toronto Recombinant Antibody Centre (TRAC) at the University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research.

Antibodies as Therapeutics

Antibodies are naturally produced by the body to fight infections, but thanks to advances in protein engineering, scientists can create synthetic antibodies tailored to inhibit disease processes or mark cancer cells for destruction by the immune system.

Over the past two decades, antibodies have emerged as the fastest-growing class of therapeutic molecules with more than 50 approved as drugs so far. Unfortunately, antibody development remains an imprecise science, conducted on a case-by-case basis. As veterans of the former Protein Engineering Department at Genentech Inc., Wells, Sidhu, and Anthony Kossiakoff, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biophysics at the University of Chicago, founded the RAN in 2012 to make antibody design and production more efficient.

The consortium has developed a fully automated, high-throughput antibody engineering platform and has generated thousands of antibodies against hundreds of cell-surface proteins. The RAN generates recombinant antibodies from cloned synthetic genes, and then selects the highest-performing antibodies using phage display technology. The ongoing partnership with Bristol Myers Squibb will enable the RAN to continue to develop and apply the latest technologies for the discovery of new cell-surface targets and the selection of clinically promising antibodies, as well as to expand research collaboration with the disease biology communities at the three universities.

“We created the RAN to address a large, unmet need in both research tools and therapeutic antibody development,” said Kossiakoff who leads the Chicago effort. “The RAN will continue to solve the problems that are inherent in traditional antibody approaches, and help to expand treatments for a variety of diseases, including cancer.