CAR-plus: Irish biotech recruits Kite alum Chris Nowers to prep dual-targeting NK cell therapy for the clinic
Soon after Chris Nowers left Cell Medica — freshly rebranded Kuur Therapeutics — in February, the Kite Pharma alum was introduced to another cell therapy player.
The basic idea of building an off-the-shelf allogeneic platform with a CAR-NK approach was familiar to him, riding on the same wave as Takeda, J&J-backed Fate, Nkarta and others. But then there was something else that stood out: a membrane-bound TNF related apoptosis inducing ligand variant, or TRAIL variant, that’s also engineered onto the NK cell for a dual-targeted attack.
It was intriguing enough for him to take on the CEO role at ONK Therapeutics, which is taking the wraps off an $8 million round designed to fund the preclinical work that will pave the way for an IND in two years’ time.
“I’ve had a little bit of a baptism of fire,” he told Endpoints News.
Despite not being able to meet Michael O’Dwyer, the CSO and a professor at National University of Ireland Galway and the team he’s leading there, he added, they have a “great partnership.”
“Michael knows the science very very thoroughly,” Nowers said. “So he’s been sending me clinical papers and data so that I can get up to speed rapidly.”
The TRAIL variant, ONK’s theory goes, adds a second mechanism of cytotoxicity that engages the death receptor pathway and remains unaffected by antigen loss.
Both of the biotech’s lead programs incorporate pretty standard CARs, the first going after CD19 for relapsed/refractory B cell malignancies and the second deploying an optimized CD38 CAR to treat patients relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma. Coming up behind them is a solid tumor candidate that hits MUC1.
This unique CAR-plus approach, Nowers believe, will be key to a fast follower like ONK while other companies are exploring similar science.
Having built up a team of 8 since 2015, O’Dwyer is looking to hire two more scientists in the Galway lab while Nowers expands the C-suite with a chief operating officer, expecting rapid growth in the coming year.
“Since the initial transformative data of autologous CAR-T therapy, which really was a step change, I think the field is really accelerating,” he said.
New York-based Acorn Bioventures is providing the fuel for ONK’s next move, alongside current shareholders including Azur Pharma founder Seamus Mulligan.