Amid remdesivir craze Gilead finds time for another oncology pact — looping in all things NK cells
Gilead’s $4.9 billion buyout of Forty Seven, announced in early March, landed in a different era before the pandemic consumed biopharma news. But even amid all the buzz around its potential Covid-19 treatment remdesivir, CEO Daniel O’Day is still making clear that oncology is where he wants to take the company.
His latest deal is a research collaboration involving a low-profile player headquartered in Melbourne — so stealthy that the upfront payment and total value are all still under wraps. What Gilead did reveal, however, is an interest in oNKo-innate’s expertise in natural killer cells as a new frontier of immuno-oncology.
“We have a strategic focus of growing both our expertise and pipeline in immuno-oncology and we believe this exciting collaboration will support each of these objectives as we work to discover and develop novel cancer therapies for patients,” William Lee, Gilead’s EVP of research, said in a statement.
While T cell mediated anti-tumor activity currently dominates cancer immunotherapy — from CAR-T to PD-(L)1 inhibition — NK cells, a fellow member of the lymphocyte class, also plays a surveillance and effector role.
Multiple approaches have emerged to kick them into action: Affimed and Dragonfly promise to activate and engage what’s already in the body, while others like Cytovia and a Takeda-backed group at MD Anderson are interested in attaching receptors to develop a CAR-NK therapy. Among those going the engineering route, there are yet different ways to manufacture NK cells. J&J recently bet on Fate Therapeutics’ iPSC-based approach; Nkarta relies on healthy donors; while Celarity extracts them from placentas.
oNKo-innate, meanwhile, says it is “modality agnostic.”
The company’s co-founders Jai Rautela and Nicholas Huntington set out in 2016 to look for the whole range of ways NK cells are involved in innate tumor recognition, how they move and persist in the body, and are negatively regulated.
Over three years, oNKo-innate will deploy its genome-wide screening techniques and immune cell target discovery platform in service of Gilead’s I/O program and subsidiary Kite Pharma’s cell therapy work. The former will likely yield targets for antibodies or fusion proteins — of which there are several in Gilead’s early-stage pipeline — while the goal of the latter is to create and evaluate NK constructs.
Gilead’s Kite subsidiary is run by Christi Shaw — and despite a recent legal setback, which leaves it on the hook for over a billion dollars in IP damages to Juno, the company is hustling a second CAR-T toward the FDA and intent on delivering more.
On the I/O side, Forty Seven marked Gilead’s largest acquisition since they bought Kite for $11.9 billion in 2017, if you leave out the partnership expansion with Galapagos worth $5 billion. That deal brought in magrolimab, a CD47 antibody that came out of Irv Weissman and Ravindra Majeti’s longtime work on the “don’t eat me” signal. Before that, back in late 2018, Gilead bet $150 million in cash on Agenus’ platform, so far producing one bispecific molecule and another blocking CD137.
More deals might yet be on the table. The latest rumor centers around Arcus, led by biotech vet Terry Rosen and developing drugs against TIGIT, CD73 and A2aR/A2bR.
Bottom line, as O’Day put it in his first analyst call of the year: Gilead aims to introduce 10 new transformative therapies in the next 10 years. Bolt-on deals and partnerships will be the way to go.