'Antibody therapeutics can help deal with next pandemic': Dr Sidhu

Dr Sachdev Sidhu is professor, Anvil Institute, University of Waterloo, Canada

22-Dr-Sachdev-Sidhu Dr Sachdev Sidhu

Canadian scientist Dr Sachdev Sidhu has been actively engaged with the groundbreaking field of antibody therapeutics. It involves the creation of synthetic antibody libraries featuring artificially designed antigen-binding sites. His work extends to various areas such as cancer, infectious diseases and many chronic disorders. Dr Sidhu and his team are instrumental in creating therapeutics for challenging conditions like Covid-19 and also treatment-resistant cancers.

Excerpts from an exclusive interview:

Q/ Could you give an overview of your research on antibody therapeutics and its applications?

We develop proteins called antibodies that can be injected into the body, which can fix problems with natural proteins. Almost every disease, including cancer, diabetes and arthritis, is caused by problems with some proteins. So, we put in new proteins that can correct the diseased proteins. And the big advantage is that we do it on a very large scale. We make new drugs rapidly and then test them in animals and then, hopefully, move on to people.

Q/ Over the past 20 years, your group has been developing this advanced frontier in antibody therapeutics, called synthetic antibody library. What are its advantages?

It is much faster [to create antibodies] now because we are doing it synthetically and at a much quicker rate. That also makes it much cheaper. And you can make the drugs much better because you are designing them. Things in nature are nice, but they are not precise, so we can quite literally make them perfectly well-suited to what we are doing. We engineer them to be very, very potent, which means they can work very well and be very selective.

Q/ What is antibody library?

We have over 10 billion different antibodies. And we can search through those in days and find the ones that are perfect for what we want. So that is why it is a library. It is literally 10 billion different antibodies. And we have ways of finding among those antibodies the one that is a perfect drug.

Q/ You build this library so that you can deal with any kind of disease.

Exactly. And it is already built. So within days, we can look through that library with our methods and find the one or two antibodies that can do exactly what we want, and that can be a drug.

Q/ Will the world be in a better position to deal with another pandemic because of the kind of research you are doing?

Yes, definitely. Now we can make, within months, drugs that can hit the virus and neutralise it. And importantly, they can also deal with different versions of the virus. The virus mutates. But we can make our drugs so good that they can deal with that as well. So, you can hit many different viruses and you can make the drugs much quicker than before.

Q/ Was your research used by other companies during the pandemic?

No, because we were just getting into the field. Until Covid struck, our main focus was on cancer and other things. After Covid came, we got involved with that. We are starting to work with companies now.

Q/ Are you looking at solutions for other infectious diseases?

We are looking at dengue, we are looking at RSV (respiratory syncytial virus), which afflicts newborn children. We are still looking at Covid. Our technology can be applied to any virus.

Q/ You spoke about the rapid discovery of antibodies. Earlier it took a lot of time to defend against many diseases. So how did you achieve this rapid discovery?

Well, that is too complicated to get into. It is synthetic. So, we are not relying on animals. We don't have to work with mice. We don't have to grow things, because it is engineered in a test tube it is much quicker to do.

Q/ How cost-effective are these?

It is cost-effective. People are making drugs much more cheaply. I think Biocon is making Herceptin for a few hundred dollars, rather than thousands of dollars. That is a cancer drug. And the better they are, the lesser you have to take those drugs. The big goal is to make it more accessible.

Q/ Another focus area of your research is protein inhibitors and potential therapeutics. Could you please elaborate?

So for cancer, where certain proteins are overactive, we develop antibodies that target those in human cells and turn them down. In breast cancer, HER2 causes the cells to grow, and Herceptin binds that protein and turns it off. So we are looking for new proteins―if their activity causes cancer to grow, and if you turn that off, then the cancer should die.

Q/ Is there any particular kind of cancer or other disease that was not curable earlier, but can be cured now because of this new domain you are working on?

Many companies are doing this and every year there are new drugs, which are antibodies. So yes, there are some things for lung cancer and various other cancers. Then there are the immune checkpoint inhibitors that have cured melanoma.

Q/ What opportunities does India have in exploring these advanced technologies? Where does India stand in this particular segment of therapeutic antibodies?

Well, it should be in a very good position. It already is the biggest producer of vaccines, which is another protein. It makes a lot of antibody drugs that are biosimilars. So India already knows how to make these. You just have to invest in the new drugs that are coming. So we want to partner with India.