Neoleukin's quest to shake up the IL-2 space gets a boost via reverse merger with Aquinox
Months after launching out of the University of Washington, Neoleukin Therapeutics is making a swift leap to the Nasdaq and gaining momentum to push its new IL-2 cancer drug to the clinic.
Aquinox Pharmaceuticals — which had been exploring strategic alternatives after a late-stage disaster forced the company to ax half its staff — provided the shell for the reverse merger. Their shareholders will own around 61.42% of the combined entity while Neoleukin gets access to $65 million in capitalization.
As the Neoleukin brand $NLTX and the executive team take over, David Main is exiting the picture as Jonathan Drachman assumes the CEO role. His VP team comprising Daniel Silva, Umut Ulge and Carl Walkey will continue their work in research, translational medicine and corporate development, respectively. Meanwhile, Aquinox’s Kamran Alam will help out with the transition as interim CFO.
Drachman, a Seattle Genetics vet, calls the merger “transformational” as it provides “additional capital to prepare an IND submission, generate clinical data, develop additional preclinical programs, and advance our computational technology.”
Neoleukin’s breakthrough revolves around leveraging the potency of IL-2 while avoiding the toxicity issues that have plagued the human recombinant IL-2 Proleukin (and spurred Novartis to offload the drug to Clinigen). Working with a computational technology out of the Institute of Protein Design, the group designed a de novo protein that binds specifically to IL-2 beta and gamma receptors as well as IL-15. The mechanism of action supposedly circumvents CD25, considered responsible for toxic side effects.
They are vying for a place in the clinic at a time the controversy is still brewing around Nektar’s own attempt at solving the IL-2 dilemma. Bristol-Myers Squibb paid the biotech $1.85 billion in upfront cash to pair NKTR-214 with their checkpoint Opdivo, but enthusiasm around the combo has dwindled alongside the overall response rate.
Other rivals are plotting their own moves, too, with Laura Shawver’s Synthorx $THOR entering the clinic a few weeks ago. Backed by OrbiMed and Medicxi, the biotech’s lead candidate is a variant of human recombinant IL-2 with a pegylated in a way that doesn’t engage the alpha receptor. The “not-alpha” structure gives it similar activity to IL-15, extends half-life and does not induce the vascular leak syndrome that Proleukin is known for, according to the biotech.
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