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.

5AM Ven­tures: Fu­el­ing the Next Gen­er­a­tion of In­no­va­tors

By RBC Capital Markets
With Andy Schwab, Co-Founder and Managing Partner at 5AM Ventures

Key Points

Prescription Digital Therapeutics, cell therapy technologies, and in silico medicines will be a vital part of future treatment modalities.
Unlocking the potential of the microbiome could be the missing link to better disease diagnosis.
Growing links between academia, industry, and venture capital are spinning out more innovative biotech companies.
Biotech is now seen by investors as a growth space as well as a safe haven, fuelling the recent IPO boom.

Hal Barron, GSK via YouTube

What does $29B buy you in Big Phar­ma? In Glax­o­SmithK­line’s case, a whole lot of un­com­fort­able ques­tions about the pipeline

Talk about your bad timing.

A little over a week ago, GSK R&D chief Hal Barron marked his third anniversary at the research helm by taking a turn at the virtual podium during JP Morgan to make the case that he and his team had built a valuable late-stage pipeline capable of churning out more than 10 blockbusters in the next 5 years.

And then, just days later, one of the cancer drugs he bet big on as a top prospect — bintrafusp, partnered with Merck KGaA — failed its first pivotal test in non-small cell lung cancer.

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Janet Woodcock (AP Images)

End­points poll: Janet Wood­cock takes the (in­ter­im) helm at the FDA. And a large ma­jor­i­ty of our read­ers want her to stay there

It’s official: Janet Woodcock is now the acting chief of the FDA.

And — according to an Endpoints poll — most industry readers would like her to stay there, although a significant minority is strongly opposed.

To recap: Joe Biden is reportedly choosing between Woodcock and former deputy FDA commissioner Joshua Sharfstein as his nominee for the permanent position. Given their respective track records, the decision is set to determine the agency’s lodestar for years to come.

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An Endpoints Zoom meeting; and the email header employees will see if your company is a Premium subscriber

What’s next for End­points — and how to sup­port our in­de­pen­dent bio­phar­ma news mis­sion

The firehose of biopharma news is gushing these days.

That’s why broader and deeper is the theme for 2021 at Endpoints. You can expect new coverage outside our core R&D focus, with deeper reporting in some key areas. When John Carroll and I launched Endpoints nearly five years ago, we were wading in waist-high waters. Now we’re a team of 25 full-time staffers (and growing) with plans to cover the flood of biopharma news, Endpoints-style.

Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein (AP, Images)

Poll: Should Joshua Sharf­stein or Janet Wood­cock lead the FDA from here?

It’s time for a new FDA commissioner to come on board, a rite of passage for Joe Biden’s administration that should help seal the new president’s rep on seeking out the experts to lead the government over the next 4 years.

As of now, the competition for the top job appears to have narrowed down to 2 people: The longtime CDER chief Janet Woodcock and Joshua Sharfstein, the former principal deputy at the FDA under Peggy Hamburg. Both were appointed by Barack Obama.

Fast on Glax­o­SmithK­line's heels, Au­rinia wins OK to steer a sec­ond lu­pus nephri­tis drug straight to the mar­ket

GlaxoSmithKline’s Benlysta isn’t alone in the small circle of approved lupus nephritis drugs anymore.

Little Aurinia Pharmaceuticals has gotten the green light from the FDA to start marketing its first and only program, voclosporin, under the brand name Lupkynis — something CEO Peter Greenleaf says it’s been ready to do since December.

Regulators went right down to the wire on the decision, keeping the company and the entire salesforce it’s already assembled on its toes.

Charlie Fuchs, Roche and Genentech global head of product development for oncology and hematology (Yale Cancer Center)

Yale can­cer spe­cial­ist Char­lie Fuchs tapped as new glob­al de­vel­op­ment chief for Roche/Genen­tech

Roche and their big sub Genentech have just recruited a top cancer specialist at Yale to head up global product development in oncology and hematology.

I just got word that the pharma giant, which leads one of the most active cancer research operations in the world, recruited Charlie Fuchs, director of the Yale Cancer Center and physician-in-chief of Smilow Cancer Hospital. He’ll join the global operation March 1 and will be based in South San Francisco, where Genentech is based.

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Neu­vo­gen un­cloaks with broad plan of at­tack for whole-cell can­cer vac­cines, clin­i­cal hopes with­in the year

After about four stealthy years in the development phase, San Diego-based Neuvogen is emerging with a new approach to whole-cell cancer vaccines and nine solid tumor programs bound for the clinic.

Whole-cell tumor vaccines are developed by taking cancer cells from patients and modifying them to make them immunogenic.

“What’s different from what we do, is most people use one cell line. We use six,” CEO Todd Binder said. From there, the company builds out six modifications to eliminate problematic immunosuppressive factors, and add what the executive called three “stimulatory factors” to generate a prime and overcome peripheral tolerance.

Jonathan Weissman (MIT)

Can a new CRISPR tech­nique un­lock the se­crets of how can­cer spreads?

Jonathan Weissman’s team watched the cancer cells spread across the doomed mouse. Engineered with a bioluminescent enzyme, they appeared in scans first as a small navy blue diamond lodged near the heart; a week later, as a triangle splayed across the mouse’s upper body, with streaks of green and two distinct bright red hubs of activity. By day 54, the mouse resembled a lava lamp.

The images would have been familiar to any cancer biologist, but they didn’t actually tell you much about what was going on: why the cancer was metastasizing or which cells were responsible. For that, Weissman’s team had designed a new tool. Inside the original navy blue diamond, they had engineered the microbiological equivalent of an airplane’s black box — a “molecular recorder” that, after the mouse’s death, could allow them to extract the cells and wind back intimate footage of a single cancer’s ascent.

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