PHAS Researcher Carl Hansen leads UBC biotechnology spin-off AbCellera

March 8, 2019
News Thumbnail Caption
Pictured: Ester Falconer, Kevin Heyries, Carl Hansen, Murray McCutcheon, Kathleen Lisaingo, Véronique Lecault, Sherie Duncan. Missing from the photo: Dan Da Costa, Mani Hamidi, Maia Smith.

(via Michael Smith Labs / AbCellera) You might already hold the cure for flu or dementia. How? Your body makes billions of unique antibodies and one of these could be the basis for a treatment. But, how do you find that one rare therapeutic antibody buried in the proverbial haystack? 

AbCellera, a local biotechnology company founded at the University of British Columbia (UBC), has developed a new method that can search immune responses more deeply than any other technology. Using a microfluidic platform developed at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories, advanced immunology, protein chemistry, performance computing, and machine learning, AbCellera is changing the game for antibody therapeutics. 

AbCellera started out in 2012 at UBC with only six employees: Dr. Carl Hansen, an Associate Professor at UBC’s Michael Smith Laboratories and the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and five members from his research group. That year, the Hansen lab, in collaboration with Dr. James Piret’s lab and Dr. Chip Haynes’ lab at UBC, had a major breakthrough and developed the microfluidic fluorescence bead assay that is at the core of AbCellera’s technology. Not only did the technology fall in place at the right time, but Hansen also had a group of talented people who were looking to start the next stage of their careers. 

“We had trained a group of postdoctoral fellows, engineers, and scientists who were accustomed to working in a very interdisciplinary way, and who were looking for the next big opportunity,” said Hansen. Fast-forward seven years later and AbCellera’s platform has grown to become the leading technology in discovering antibodies to turn into therapeutics. AbCellera’s team is growing too. They are currently over 75 people and hiring.

What’s unique about AbCellera’s microfluidic single-cell screening technology is that it is fundamentally different from traditional technologies like hybridoma and phage display. Instead of fusing B cells with cancer cell lines to create an immortal antibody-producing hybridoma or artificially expressing mammalian genes in yeast or bacteria, AbCellera looks for the antibodies expressed naturally. To do this, AbCellera’s researchers run tiny assays to find the antibodies with the right binding properties, recover the cells making those antibodies, identify each cell’s antibody gene sequences, and then uses those sequences to express the antibodies recombinantly. While conventional technologies for creating monoclonal antibodies take months, AbCellera’s technology delivers hundreds of these valuable sequences in just a matter of days.  

AbCellera is only one example in British Columbia’s growing hub of biotech companies. Vancouver is also home to impressive biotech companies like STEMCELL, ZymeWorks, Aspect Biosystems, and Microbiome Insights. Recent biological breakthroughs, increasing application of powerful computation, and an influx of capital, have created a fertile ecosystem for world-changing discoveries. 

Post-secondary institutions in British Columbia are contributing to this growth by providing training like the Genome Science and Technology Graduate Program and the Bioinformatics Graduate Program, supporting the next generation of biotech scientists. These programs equip graduates with a diverse skill set, ready for a career in academia or industry. UBC’s institutions have already commercialized over 80 life sciences technologies through partnerships and licensing with corporate partners and created 94 spinoff companies. With biotechnology becoming a promising field to watch, it will be exciting to see what the future holds for biotechnology in British Columbia, and for rapidly growing companies like AbCellera.

CarlHansen_thumbnail.jpgCarl Hansen, PhD (CEO and President, Director)

Carl Hansen is the founding CEO at AbCellera, a therapeutic antibody discovery company that was created based on technology developed in his academic group at UBC where he is an Associate Professor.  Through his career he has co-authored over 65 manuscripts in fields of microfluidics, immunology, genomics, and nanotechnology. He is an inventor on more than 50 patents and patent applications related to this work (38 granted) that are represented in 7 commercial microfluidic products. Dr. Hansen has been engaged in technology translation and entrepreneurship since 2002.  In addition to leading AbCellera, he is a scientific co-founder of Precision Nanosystems, an industry leader in next-generation delivery technology for genetic medicines, and previously served on the SAB of Fluidigm corp. Carl holds a BASc in Engineering Physics & honours Mathematics (University of British Columbia, 2000), and a doctorate in Applied Physics and Biotechnology from Caltech, 2004, where he trained with Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub Director Stephen Quake. Prior to taking his UBC position, Carl trained as a postdoctoral fellow with biotech legend Leroy Hood at the Institute for Systems Biology.