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.

Michel Vounatsos, Biogen CEO (via YouTube)

UP­DAT­ED: Bio­gen spot­lights a pair of painful pipeline set­backs as ad­u­canum­ab show­down looms at the FDA

Biogen has flagged a pair of setbacks in the pipeline, spotlighting the final failure for a one-time top MS prospect while scrapping a gene therapy for SMA after the IND was put on hold due to toxicity.

Both failures will raise the stakes even higher on aducanumab, the Alzheimer’s drug that Biogen is betting the ranch on, determined to pursue an FDA OK despite significant skepticism they can make it with mixed results and a reliance on post hoc data mining. And the failures are being reported as Biogen was forced to cut its profit forecast for 2020 as a generic rival started to erode their big franchise drug.

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A new chap­ter in the de­cen­tral­ized clin­i­cal tri­al ap­proach

Despite the promised decentralized trial revolution, we haven’t yet moved the needle in a significant way, although we are seeing far bolder commitments to this as we continue to experience the pandemic restrictions for some time to come. The vision of grandeur is one thing, but operationalizing and execution are another and recognising that change, particularly mid-flight on studies, is worthy of thorough evaluation and consideration in order to achieve success. Here we will discuss one of the critical building blocks of a Decentralized and Remote Trial strategy: TeleConsent; more than paper under glass, it is a paradigm change and key digital enabler.

Stephen Hahn, FDA commissioner (AP Images)

As FDA sets the stage for the first Covid-19 vac­cine EUAs, some big play­ers are ask­ing for a tweak of the guide­lines

Setting the stage for an extraordinary one-day meeting of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee this Thursday, the FDA has cleared 2 experts of financial conflicts to help beef up the committee. And regulators went on to specify the safety, efficacy and CMC input they’re looking for on EUAs, before they move on to the full BLA approval process.

All of this has already been spelled out to the developers. But the devil is in the details, and it’s clear from the first round of posted responses that some of the top players — including J&J and Pfizer — would like some adjustments and added feedback. And on Thursday, the experts can offer their own thoughts on shaping the first OKs.

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UP­DAT­ED: CRISPR Ther­a­peu­tics gets a snap­shot of off-the-shelf CAR-T suc­cess in B-cell ma­lig­nan­cies — marred by the death of a pa­tient

Just days after scientific founder Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the Nobel prize for her work on CRISPR/Cas9, CRISPR Therapeutics $CRSP is showing off a snapshot of success in their early-stage study for an off-the-shelf CAR-T approach to CD19+ B cell malignancies — a snapshot marred by the death of a patient who had been given a high dose of the treatment.

Using their gene editing tech, researchers for CRISPR engineered cells from healthy donors into an attack vehicle aimed at cancer, something that has been achieved with great success using patients’ own cells — the autologous approach. But autologous CAR-T is hampered by the more complex vein-to-vein requirement that delays treatment, and now CRISPR Therapeutics along with other players like Allogene are determined to replace the pioneers with CAR-T 2.0.

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David Hung (file photo)

Mas­ter deal­mak­er David Hung re­tools a SPAC sedan in­to a fi­nanc­ing mus­cle ve­hi­cle that leaves his can­cer start­up with $850M and a place on Wall Street

It’s only right that one of the industry’s top dealmakers just completed one of the biggest SPAC-related deals in the pipeline.

David Hung, of Medivation fame, has completed a back flip into the market, merging with EcoR1 Capital’s SPAC Panacea and landing neatly on Wall Street with an $NUVB stock ticker after filling out the blank check in his name. In addition to the $144 million held in the SPAC — provided none of the investors opt out — Hung is getting ahold of $500 million more being chipped in by a slate of institutional investors who feel that Hung could have the keys to another Medivation-style success.

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Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Pfiz­er is on the verge of claim­ing a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar first-mover ad­van­tage with their Covid-19 vac­cine — an­a­lyst

From the beginning, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla eschewed government funding for his Covid-19 vaccine work with BioNTech, willing to take all the $2 billion-plus risk of a lightning-fast development campaign in exchange for all the rewards that could fall its way with success. And now that the pharma giant has seized a solid lead in the race to the market, those rewards loom large.

SVB Leerink’s Geoff Porges has been running the numbers on Pfizer’s vaccine, the mRNA BNT162b2 program that the German biotech partnered on. And he sees a $3.5 billion peak in windfall revenue next year alone. Even after the pandemic is brought to heel, though, Porges sees a continuing blockbuster role for this vaccine as people around the world look to guard against a new, thoroughly endemic virus that will pose a permanent threat.

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CEO Grace Colón (InCarda)

Look­ing to re­pur­pose an old drug to treat ir­reg­u­lar heart­beats, In­Car­da rais­es $30M in first Se­ries C close

A little less than two years after completing its $42 million Series B round, InCarda has returned to the venture well.

The San Francisco-based biotech announced the first portion of its Series C on Wednesday, pulling in $30 million in new funding. Most of the money will give enough runway for InCarda’s InRhythm program, an inhaled therapeutic aiming to treat sudden episodes of irregular heartbeats, through its Phase II trials and prepare it for Phase III.

Steve Chen, Cellis Therapeutics president and CMO (Cellics)

UC San Diego spin­out award­ed up to $15M for nanosponge de­signed to soak up sep­sis-caus­ing tox­ins

CARB-X, a global partnership looking to spur the development of new antibacterial drugs, is awarding Cellics Therapeutics $3.94 million to do what president and CMO Steve Chen calls “looking at traditional drug development upside down.”

Instead of going after a target directly — in this case bacterial toxins and inflammatory cytokines that cause sepsis — Cellics researchers “flip it around” to examine the host cells being attacked. The UC San Diego spinout then creates what it calls “nanosponges” — nanoparticles cloaked in the fragments of macrophage cell membranes. Chen says the “sponges” are designed to trap the sepsis-causing endotoxins and cytokines on their cell membranes, neutralizing them.

RBC's Bri­an Abra­hams holds a mock ad­comm on Bio­gen's iffy ad­u­canum­ab da­ta — and most of these ex­perts don't see a path to an ap­proval

As catalysts go, few loom larger than the aducanumab adcomm slated for Nov. 6.

With its big franchise under assault, Biogen is betting the ranch that its mixed late-stage Alzheimer’s data can squeak past the experts and regulators and get onto the market. And the topic — after a decade of Alzheimer’s R&D disasters in what still represents the El Dorado of drug markets — remains in the center ring of discussions around late-stage pipeline prospects.

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