Six Tees students recruited in fight against Covid-19

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Six Teesside students have been recruited by a company which is at the forefront of the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Absolute Antibody, based at The Wilton Centre in Redcar, works with 14 of the world’s top 15 pharmaceutical companies who are trying to develop a vaccine or treatment for the virus.

“You go into science because you want to do something that counts and matters,” said Dr Catherine Bladen, Absolute Antibody’s chief operating officer.

“Everybody here is focused on the fact that we are potentially assisting in resolving this massive issue. We’ve never been busier.”

To support the work of Dr Bladen’s team of 30, the six students – all studying at northern universities – have been temporarily employed to help in Absolute Antibody’s laboratories.

Ella Smithyman, from Middlesbrough, has just finished a degree in Biomedical Sciences at Chester University. She will be working with the company for the 12 months before studying for a Masters Degree in Molecular Medicine/Cancer Biology.

Dominic Scott, also from Middlesbrough, is a second year Chemistry student at Newcastle University. He will be staying with Absolute Antibody throughout the summer before resuming his studies.

Ella and Dominic are both working in the company’s Upstream Laboratory making DNA for Covid-19 antibody production.

“From a young scientist’s point of view it’s a phenomenal thing to put on your CV,” said Dr Bladen, who hopes to employ all six students when they have completed their university courses.

Absolute Antibody was launched in 2012 in Oxford. Two years later it moved its manufacturing facility to The Wilton Centre, which last year became its international headquarters. The company also has offices in the United States and Netherlands.

“We suspected that we would grow quite quickly – and you tend to get fairly landlocked somewhere like Oxford – so the ability to spread our wings into adjacent labs was very big and that’s kind of what we’ve done here: we had one lab, two, three and now an entire floor. At Wilton we’ve been able to do what we hoped we would be able to do,” said Dr Bladen, who grew up in Marton.

The company specialises in antibody sequencing, antibody engineering and antibody recombinant production.

Its expertise grew in demand as the world’s major pharmaceutical companies started outsourcing key functions, such as research and development, the production of antibodies and pre-clinical testing.

It now has customers in 62 countries and earlier this year was awarded The Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade.

“What makes us slightly different from all of the other companies is the number of anti-bodies we can do. It’s not unusual for us to make 250 anti-bodies in a week. This would be impossible without the space we have at Wilton,” said Dr Bladen.

“We’ve just taken on another lab upstairs and again that flexibility is really what sets Wilton apart from everywhere else. If we need to expand we can do it very quickly.” As well as its new work, Absolute Antibody has nearly 5,000 engineered recombinant antibodies already available off the shelf.

Absolute Antibody is one of several of the 63 businesses based at Wilton who are involved in COVID-19 projects, said the Centre’s accommodation manager Claire Morton.

“We’ve kept open throughout the pandemic as we knew how vital that was for all of our businesses – particularly those who are making a contribution to the fight against coronavirus,” she said.

The Wilton Centre has introduced major safety measures to ensure the well-being of the 750 people who work there.

“Many of the businesses here are used to the discipline of working in a laboratory, where they have to wear protective clothing and prevent contamination or infection,” said Ms Morton. “But we also have a number of other companies – for example, solicitors, recruitment companies and IT businesses – who we have also helped to stay safe.”