Catamaran Bio sails into the CAR-NK waters with a $42M launch round
Catamaran Bio’s founding members decided to jump into the CAR-NK game last December over drinks at a trendy bar in Boston.
They were sitting around a table, discussing an MD Anderson study which provided some of the first clinical proof that natural killer (NK) cells can be reengineered to attack tumors, much like CAR-T therapies. It was a “long and lively” discussion, COO Mark Boshar recalls. And by the time it was over, they had a starting point to launch a company.
“The ‘ideal’ cell therapy approach would come from a holistic approach — not a single linchpin technology — in order to make progress beyond the limitations of early generation products,” Boshar wrote in a statement.
On Monday, Catamaran Bio emerged from stealth with $42 million in Series A and seed funding to develop what Boshar called the “holy grail” of cell therapies: off-the-shelf CAR-NK drugs made with donor cells to treat solid tumors.
Catamaran’s therapies will do two key things: attack solid tumor cells and the tumor microenvironment, which surrounds the cells like a force field, CSO Vipin Suri told Endpoints News. In the hopes of getting around the cell therapy manufacturing bottleneck, the biotech is using a non-viral transposon system to deliver the genetic payloads, rather than viral vectors.
Unlike CAR-T treatments — which require the long and costly process of drawing a patient’s own cells, treating them and reinjecting them — CAR-NK therapies can be made with donor cells. That’s because donor T cells would likely trigger graft-versus-host disease, while foreign NK cells don’t. The end goal is a cell therapy that doesn’t look like a trip to the hospital, Suri said.
“The idea is very much to have an off-the-shelf therapy such that … when a physician determines that a patient can benefit from cell therapy, it is available to be administered as a therapy right then, or shortly thereafter,” he told Endpoints News.
Catamaran currently has two programs, dubbed the TAILWIND Platform, which Suri expects to enter the clinic in the next few years. Development will be funded by the Series A, which was led by Sofinnova Partners and Lightstone Ventures, with help from founding investor SV Health Investors, as well as Takeda Ventures and Astellas Venture Management.
The CAR-NK field is abound with new players, led by MD Anderson and Takeda, who said they’re looking to initiate a pivotal trial next year. Then there’s J&J-backed Fate Therapeutics, which was cleared for its first CAR-NK clinical trial in September; Nkarta recently dosed the first participant in a clinical trial, and says a second IND is coming in Q1 of 2021; and ONK Therapeutics, which said in October that it’s about two years out from an IND.
“All these companies have great teams, but we really believe that the team that Kevin (Pojasek), Mark and Vipin put together is a truly differentiated company,” SV Health managing partner Houman Ashrafian told Endpoints.
The team of scientific founders includes George Washington University professor Catherine Bollard, who’s director of the Center for Cancer Immunology Research at the Children’s National Research Institute, and University of Minnesota assistant professor Branden Moriarity, who holds patents in key areas, including for technologies using DNA transposon systems. There’s also CMO Chris Carpenter, who previously served as CMO of Rubius Therapeutics after spending time at GSK and Merck, and senior VP of research Celeste Richardson, who hails from Obsidian Therapeutics and Novartis.
“Catamaran to us symbolizes the journey. Our journey is to broaden the reach of cell therapy for patients in more indications,” Suri said.
This story has been updated to clarify that Nkarta has recently dosed the first patient in its clinical trial.