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.

Jonathan Drach­man

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.

David Main

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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Pascal Soriot (AP Images)

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The flu virus (CDC)

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John Maraganore, Alnylam CEO (Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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Bob Nelsen (Photo by Michael Kovac/Getty Images)

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