Alchemab: The UK biotech that is revolutionising drug discovery

Alchemab is a Cambridge biotech that aims to revolutionise drug discovery with a novel alternative to big pharma’s classic “choose a target” approach. Optimum’s Richard Staines caught up with Alchemab’s CEO, Young Kwon, to find out more.

The UK has long been a leader in the field of antibody drug technology, and it was British research in the 1990s that led to the creation of Humira (adalimumab), the inflammatory diseases blockbuster.

Humira paved the way for a new generation of antibody drugs that have become standard therapies for many serious diseases and the technology has been developed to produce drugs that target cancer, rare and infectious diseases.

All of these drugs were based on the idea of finding a molecular target linked to a disease, and creating an antibody that binds to it.

Based in Cambridge, Alchemab is using a different approach that specifically looks to identify antibodies from people who have shown resilience to disease. The company then uses its proprietary technology to identify which targets these antibodies are binding to, and what diseases these targets are associated with.

Founded in 2019 inside the offices of SV Health Investors in London by Houman Ashrafian, head of Experimental Therapeutics at Oxford University, and Jane Osbourn OBE, former vice president at MedImmune, the biologics arm of AstraZeneca, and former Chair of the Board of Directors of the BioIndustry Association (BIA), Alchemab is led by a team of scientific experts who hope this new approach will produce medicines for diseases where the conventional target-led approach has failed or fallen short of expectations.

Chief Executive Officer Young Kwon explained: “Alchemab was lucky to pull together this team…to discover novel therapies from patients that are resilient. It is a different idea for a biotech to find antibodies in people that are well.”

Jane Osbourn is also Alchemab’s Chief Scientific Officer and was formerly a research leader at Cambridge Antibody Technology, the company that first discovered Humira before it was passed along through several companies to AbbVie.

The Company’s mission is to isolate “protective autoantibodies”, which the body produces in response to diseases. The approach is to compare the complete repertoire of antibodies of resilient individuals with those who have a disease.

Alchemab then investigates the antibodies that are present in resilient individuals to see whether they could be used therapeutically. Sifting through 100,000 to a million antibodies per person is no mean feat and requires not only lab technology but also huge computing power.

The Company has hired machine learning experts and biomathematicians for this part of the process and has a partnership with Nvidia that grants access to the UK’s most powerful supercomputer – Cambridge-1.

“We start by identifying antibodies that could be lead molecules, but we don’t necessarily know what they bind to,” Kwon said.

Alchemab has a range of technologies that allow it to identify the binding partners of the antibodies. This part is handled by Alchemab’s proprietary technology that displays around 3,000 binding sites, which antibodies are panned through.

Antibodies that stick against the binding sites on display are the ones that are of most interest as potential therapies.

So far, the company has a preclinical pipeline including antibodies for Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, and solid tumours.

Kwon said: “We have an unbiased approach. We are not hypothesizing that the target is protein X or protein Y.  Instead, we are using a platform that allows the immune system of these resilient individuals to tell us what it is targeting.”


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