Paul Hastings. Nkarta

Nkar­ta maps out clin­i­cal, man­u­fac­tur­ing plans for CAR-NK fol­low­ing $114M round led by Sam­sara

Back in 2015 NEA Ven­tures, SR One and No­vo Hold­ings pulled to­geth­er $11 mil­lion to kick­start the lat­est ven­ture to come out of Dario Cam­pana’s lab — which has al­so birthed Unum and Me­diS­ix — fo­cused on nat­ur­al killer (NK) cells. Four stealthy years lat­er, Nkar­ta is poised for the clin­ic with a $114 mil­lion Se­ries B to fu­el the big leap.

While the cur­rent buzz on cell ther­a­pies for can­cer has gen­er­al­ly cen­tered around some vari­a­tion of T cells from the ap­proved CAR-T to TCR, Nkar­ta be­lieves NK cells of­fer ad­van­tages that T cells lack. Since they are part of the in­nate im­mune sys­tem, NK cells can iden­ti­fy and hit a broad­er range of tar­gets pre­sent­ed on tu­mor cells.

“Rather than re­act to anti­gens that are be­ing pre­sent­ed by for­eign in­vaders of the sys­tem, NK cells are there to make sure your own cells are be­hav­ing the way that they should,” said Nadir Mah­mood, SVP of cor­po­rate de­vel­op­ment.

Nadir Mah­mood

Click on the im­age to see the full-sized ver­sion

But they al­so make up a small por­tion of the im­mune cell pop­u­la­tion and their po­ten­cy could wane quick­ly. Cam­pana’s break­through is de­vis­ing ways to grow NK cells from healthy donors quick­ly by co-cul­tur­ing them with co-stim­u­la­to­ry cell lines, while en­gi­neer­ing them to ex­press a mem­brane bound form of IL-15, en­hanc­ing their per­sis­tence, Mah­mood added.

Build­ing on those foun­da­tion­al tech­nolo­gies, the Nkar­ta team has ze­roed in on NKX101, which they call fourth-gen­er­a­tion CAR-NK cells. Un­like the chimeric anti­gen re­cep­tor pro­grammed in­to T cells — which typ­i­cal­ly cor­re­sponds to one anti­gen — their CAR is de­signed to hit a tar­get called NKG2D as­so­ci­at­ed with up to eight lig­ands that can be found on tu­mor cells.

“The CAR for­mat makes it a more po­tent sig­naler of the cy­to­tox­ic ac­tiv­i­ty in the NK cell,” Mah­mood said of their ”su­per­charged” prod­uct.

Dario Cam­pana

It promis­es to be much more pow­er­ful than the NK en­gager ap­proach tak­en by Drag­on­fly and Af­fimed, which has gen­er­at­ed con­sid­er­able in­ter­est­ed from big play­ers like Mer­ck, Cel­gene and Genen­tech. Giv­en that NK cells from tu­mor pa­tients are im­paired and ex­haust­ed, Mah­mood said, an en­gager is es­sen­tial­ly re­cruit­ing a weak­er at­tack­er than what Nkar­ta of­fers.

With an IND planned for lat­er this year, Nkar­ta will fo­cus on re­lapsed, re­frac­to­ry cas­es of acute myeloid leukemia as their first hema­to­log­ic in­di­ca­tion. As for sol­id tu­mors, they will test a lo­cal de­liv­ery aimed at tam­ing liv­er as­so­ci­at­ed metas­tases.

A sec­ond CAR-NK pro­gram tar­get­ing CD19 in B-cell ma­lig­nan­cies is be­ing shep­herd­ed through pre­clin­i­cal stud­ies.

The tri­als will al­so rep­re­sent a test for Nkar­ta’s man­u­fac­tur­ing abil­i­ties. On top of clin­i­cal moves, in­vestors in the fi­nanc­ing — with Sam­sara Bio­Cap­i­tal lead­ing Am­gen Ven­tures, Deer­field Man­age­ment, Life Sci­ence Part­ners, Lo­gos Cap­i­tal and RA Cap­i­tal Man­age­ment — are al­so bankrolling a clin­i­cal GMP fa­cil­i­ty just a lev­el above Nkar­ta’s South San Fran­cis­co of­fices.

It’s not ex­pen­sive — Nkar­ta is pen­cilling in “sin­gle-dig­it mil­lions” in the bud­get — but mov­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing op­er­a­tions from aca­d­e­m­ic fa­cil­i­ties to their own would be cru­cial for main­tain­ing con­trol to the know-how, CEO Paul Hast­ings said.

“As you know in cell ther­a­py, the process is the prod­uct,” he said.

Matt Plun­kett

And it’s a process they are clear­ly proud of. CFO Matt Plun­kett added that each man­u­fac­tur­ing run yields hun­dreds if not low thou­sands of dos­es, low­er­ing the cost of goods to “two or­ders of mag­ni­tude be­low that of” Kym­ri­ah and Yescar­ta.

Nkar­ta is un­veil­ing its plans just as Fate Ther­a­peu­tics, a fel­low NK cell ther­a­py play­er that Hast­ings “has a lot of re­spect for,” an­nounced their first IND has been cleared. In­stead of healthy donors, Fate de­rives its NK cells from in­duced pluripo­tent stem cells (iP­SC).

The bat­tle for sec­ond-gen NK cell ther­a­peu­tics is just get­ting start­ed.

Ven­ture Cap­i­tal as a Strate­gic Part­ner: Fu­el­ing In­no­va­tion be­yond Fi­nance

The average level of investment required for a biotech start-up to succeed is increasing every year, elevating the pressure even further on venture capital to make smart financial investments. Financial investment alone, however, does not always guarantee that exciting innovations can be transformed into real businesses that make a meaningful difference to patients.

Beyond just capital

At Astellas Venture Management (AVM) – a wholly-owned venture capital organization within Astellas, headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area – capital is just one of the ingredients we offer to add value to our biotechnology investments and partnerships. We generally take a strategic investor approach for companies in our invested portfolio, providing access to expertise, technology and/or resources in addition to the injection of finance. An equity investment from AVM can include access to Astellas’ research and development (R&D) capabilities and expertise, and a global network of partner academic institutions and biotechnology companies, to help advance and accelerate the start-up’s innovation.

UP­DAT­ED: Ver­tex joins Mer­ck, Pfiz­er — re­vamp­ing multi­bil­lion-dol­lar tri­al strat­e­gy as biotech R&D crum­bles

You can add Pfizer, Merck and — as we found out Friday morning — Vertex to the growing list of pharma giants hitting the pause button on a range of clinical trials. But not everyone in R&D is getting a red light.

Vertex says that it’s doing its best to keep working its pipeline strategy, coming up with a plan “to enable virtual clinic visits and home delivery of study drug to ensure study continuity and medical monitoring, and to facilitate study procedures.”

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Covid-19 roundup: In­ter­cept, blue­bird and a grow­ing list of biotechs feel the pain as pan­dem­ic man­gles FDA, R&D sched­ules

Around 100 staffers at Boston area hospitals have now tested positive for Covid-19, spotlighting the growing risk that the pandemic will sideline many of the most essential workers in healthcare as caseloads peak in the US and around the globe. With more than 3,400 deaths, Spain has become the latest country to surpass the official death count attributed to the new coronavirus in China, where the outbreak originated. As of Thursday morning, confirmed global cases had crossed 470,000 and the death count eclipsed 21,000.

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Af­ter crit­ics lam­bast­ed Gilead for grab­bing the FDA's spe­cial rare drug sta­tus on remde­sivir, they're giv­ing it back

Two days after Gilead won orphan drug status for remdesivir as a potential treatment for Covid-19, they’re handing it back.

The company was slammed from several sides after Gilead reported that the FDA had come through with the special status, which comes with 7 years of market exclusivity, the waiver of FDA fees and some tax credits as well. Typically, everyone who can get orphan status lands it without much of a fuss, but Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Public Citizen and other consumer groups were outraged.

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Mod­er­na CEO Stéphane Ban­cel out­lines a short path for emer­gency use of a coro­n­avirus vac­cine

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has left no doubts that it takes 12 to 18 months to get a new vaccine tested and in commercial use, in the best of circumstances. But in times of a global emergency — like these — maybe there’s another, faster route to follow.

In an SEC filing on Tuesday, Moderna $MRNA staked out a record-setting pathway to getting their mRNA vaccine into the frontline of the healthcare response as early as this fall. The SEC filing notes that CEO Stéphane Bancel told Goldman Sachs that an emergency use approval could allow the vaccine to go to healthcare workers and certain individuals in a matter of months — presumably provided the NIH sees the safety and efficacy data they would need from the Phase I.

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Caught in a Covid-19 mael­strom, Eli Lil­ly locks down clin­i­cal tri­als as multi­bil­lion-dol­lar R&D ops de­rail

The Covid-19 pandemic has derailed Eli Lilly’s $6 billion R&D operations.

The pharma giant reported Monday morning that it has decided to hit the brakes on most new study starts and pause enrollment for most ongoing studies. Lilly adds that it is continuing dosing for ongoing studies, “but with study-by-study consideration.”

The pandemic has severely disrupted healthcare systems around the globe, says Lilly, making it difficult or impossible to conduct studies at many research sites. And there’s no timeline for when it expects to get back on track.

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As share buy­backs come un­der scruti­ny, what's in store for the bio­phar­ma in­dus­try?

Stock buybacks are not to be permitted for companies that will be bailed out in the coronavirus stimulus package, Congressional leaders have signaled. To what degree the biopharma industry has relied on buybacks for earnings growth in recent years, and if the trend continues, are the big questions as scrutiny into the practice heightens and balance sheets weaken with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on global economies.

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A Sin­ga­pore VC rais­es $200M for a new round, but will Covid-19 pre­vent it from rais­ing the rest?

A top Singaporean biotech venture fund is nearly halfway toward its largest ever fund, but in a sign of what could be in store for VCs amid a global economic freeze, said they could face headwinds raising the other half.

Vickers Venture Partners has secured $200 million out of a targeted $500 million for its 6th fund, first announced in early 2018. They’ve given themselves 13 months to complete the financing, Vickers founder Finian Tan told Deal Street Asia, but the financial frost settling amid the Covid-19 pandemic could slow efforts.

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Strug­gling Unum ex­ecs are ready to con­sid­er a sale, merg­er or any deal that comes its way

Unum $UMRX is working its way through a survival plan of sorts.

After getting hit with a trio of FDA holds in its brief public history and triggering its second pivot to a new lead drug program while laying off 60% of the staff, the troubled penny stock biotech Unum Therapeutics has hatched new plans to secure financial backing while lining up a go-forward strategy for the company.

First, Lincoln Park Capital Fund has agreed to buy up to $25 million of the long-suffering stock, as Unum directs. And the executive team — led by CEO Chuck Wilson — has put everything on the table for consideration: a sale, acquisition, merger, licensing deal, you name it. The ACTR707 program, meanwhile, is being formally wrapped up — their second failed lead program.