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.

BY­OD Best Prac­tices: How Mo­bile De­vice Strat­e­gy Leads to More Pa­tient-Cen­tric Clin­i­cal Tri­als

Some of the most time- and cost-consuming components of clinical research center on gathering, analyzing, and reporting data. To improve efficiency, many clinical trial sponsors have shifted to electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA), including electronic patient-reported outcome (ePRO) tools.

In most cases, patients enter data using apps installed on provisioned devices. At a time when 81% of Americans own a smartphone, why not use the device they rely on every day?

Image: Shutterstock

Eli Lil­ly asks FDA to re­voke EUA for Covid-19 treat­ment

Eli Lilly on Friday requested that the FDA revoke the emergency authorization for its Covid-19 drug bamlanivimab, which is no longer as effective as a combo therapy because of a rise in coronavirus variants across the US.

“With the growing prevalence of variants in the U.S. that bamlanivimab alone may not fully neutralize, and with sufficient supply of etesevimab, we believe now is the right time to complete our planned transition and focus on the administration of these two neutralizing antibodies together,” Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s CSO, said in a statement.

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Osman Kibar (Samumed, now Biosplice)

Os­man Kibar lays down his hand at Sa­mumed, step­ping away from CEO role as his once-her­ald­ed an­ti-ag­ing biotech re­brands

Samumed made quite the entrance back in 2016, when it launched with some anti-aging programs and a whopping $12 billion valuation. That level of fanfare was nowhere to be found on Thursday, when the company added another $120 million to its coffers and quietly changed its name to Biosplice Therapeutics.

Why the sudden rebrand?

“We did that for obvious reasons,” CFO and CBO Erich Horsley told Endpoints News. “The name Biosplice echoes our science much more than Samumed does.”

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Near­ly a year af­ter Au­den­tes' gene ther­a­py deaths, the tri­al con­tin­ues. What hap­pened re­mains a mys­tery

Natalie Holles was five months into her tenure as Audentes CEO and working to smooth out a $3 billion merger when the world crashed in.

Holles and her team received word on the morning of May 5 that, hours before, a patient died in a trial for their lead gene therapy. They went into triage mode, alerting the FDA, calling trial investigators to begin to understand what happened, and, the next day, writing a letter to alert the patient community so they would be the first to know. “We wanted to be as forthright and transparent as possible,” Holles told me late last month.

The brief letter noted two other patients also suffered severe reactions after receiving a high dose of the therapy and were undergoing treatment. One died a month and a half later, at which point news of the deaths became public, jolting an emergent gene therapy field and raising questions about the safety of the high doses Audentes and others were now using. The third patient died in August.

“It was deeply saddening,” Holles said. “But I was — we were — resolute and determined to understand what happened and learn from it and get back on track.”

Eleven months have now passed since the first death and the therapy, a potential cure for a rare and fatal muscle-wasting disease called X-linked myotubular myopathy, is back on track, the FDA having cleared the company to resume dosing at a lower level. Audentes itself is no more; last month, Japanese pharma giant Astellas announced it had completed working out the kinks of the $3 billion merger and had restructured and rebranded the subsidiary as Astellas Gene Therapies. Holles, having successfully steered both efforts, departed.

Still, questions about precisely what led to the deaths of the 3 boys still linger. Trial investigators released key details about the case last August and December, pointing to a biological landmine that Audentes could not have seen coming — a moment of profound medical misfortune. In an emerging field that’s promised cures for devastating diseases but also seen its share of safety setbacks, the cases provided a cautionary tale.

Audentes “contributed in a positive way by giving a painful but important example for others to look at and learn from,” Terry Flotte, dean of the UMass School of Medicine and editor of the journal Human Gene Therapy, told me. “I can’t see anything they did wrong.”

Yet some researchers say they’re still waiting on Astellas to release more data. The company has yet to publish a full paper detailing what happened, nor have they indicated that they will. In the meantime, it remains unclear what triggered the events and how to prevent them in the future.

“Since Audentes was the first one and we don’t have additional information, we’re kind of in a holding pattern, flying around, waiting to figure out how to land our vehicles,” said Jude Samulski, professor of pharmacology at UNC’s Gene Therapy Center and CSO of the gene therapy biotech AskBio, now a subsidiary of Bayer.

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Alise Reicin (L) and Tim Springer

Har­vard bil­lion­aire Tim Springer has lined up his lat­est biotech launch. And he's re­cruit­ed a star R&D ex­ec to man­age their break­through game plan

Tectonic Therapeutic isn’t your average biotech startup story. For all sorts of reasons.

There’s your billionaire Harvard scientist and philanthropist who’s personally bankrolling much of the operation. The CEO is one of the most prominent women involved in the global drug hunting business. And they have enough collective cachet between them to command virtually as much cash as they might dream of, at a time that biotech dreams are running beyond the fantastic.

But this story isn’t about them right now, so much as it is about a scientist who’s never quite been center stage in the floodlights of biostardom. There’s a whole group of prominent players, though, who believe that’s about to change. Players perfectly happy to gamble some significant coin to give that hope every chance possible of becoming a reality.

Andrew Kruse may not be an immediately recognizable name to you. But to his Harvard colleague Tim Springer, he’s a rock star. They co-founded the Institute for Protein Innovation together, a non-profit that the internationally renowned Springer has been funding with a fortune earned from a remarkable run of successful startups, from his first $100 million out of Millennium to the gusher of wealth that followed his decision to back Stéphane Bancel and the crew at mRNA pioneer Moderna.

Kruse has specialized in work revolving around GPCRs, or G protein-coupled receptors, that make up about a third of all — while still only scratching the surface of potential targets. He was a student of Brian Kobilka at Stanford, who won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his contribution on the work on GPCRs. And Kruse has published extensively on his lab’s structural analysis of GPCRs, which Springer believes will open the door to a whole new field of drug R&D that can crack open a slew of currently “undruggable” targets to biologics — covering a gamut of both agonists and antagonists.

“We just have unparalleled experience in the biochemistry and biophysics of GPCRs,” says Springer about this new venture of his. “Andrew Kruse is a real star. He went from being a PhD student at Stanford to an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School — he had many papers out of his PhD — and he’s gone on to full professor at Harvard Medical School in 7 years. That is a record at least in modern times. The guy is just amazing. And he’s a nice guy.”

Springer is so convinced by the potential of Kruse’s research that he put up the first $5 million to seed the company 18 months ago. Terry McGuire — the co-founder at Polaris who goes back a long way with Springer — chipped in a million.

Which brings us to the nut of today’s news story.

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J&J faces CDC ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee again next week to weigh Covid-19 vac­cine risks

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices punted earlier this week on deciding whether or not to recommend lifting a pause on the administration of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine, but the committee will meet again in an emergency session next Friday to discuss the safety issues further.

The timing of the meeting likely means that the J&J vaccine will not return to the US market before the end of next week as the FDA looks to work hand-in-hand with the CDC to ensure the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks for all age groups.

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Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view: Pe­ter Marks on why full Covid-19 vac­cine ap­provals could be just months away

Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, took time out of his busy schedule last Friday to discuss with Endpoints News all things related to his work regulating vaccines and the pandemic.

Marks, who quietly coined the name “Operation Warp Speed” before deciding to stick with his work regulating vaccines at the FDA rather than join the Trump-era program, has been the face of vaccine regulation for the FDA throughout the pandemic, and is usually spotted in Zoom meetings seated in front of his wife’s paintings.

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Pascal Soriot (AstraZeneca via YouTube)

Af­ter be­ing goad­ed to sell the com­pa­ny, Alex­ion's CEO set some am­bi­tious new goals for in­vestors. Then Pas­cal So­ri­ot came call­ing

Back in the spring of 2020, Alexion $ALXN CEO Ludwig Hantson was under considerable pressure to perform and had been for months. Elliott Advisers had been applying some high public heat on the biotech’s numbers. And in reaching out to some major stockholders, one thread of advice came through loud and clear: Sell the company or do something dramatic to change the narrative.

In the words of the rather dry SEC filing that offers a detailed backgrounder on the buyout deal, Alexion stated: ‘During the summer and fall of 2020, Alexion also continued to engage with its stockholders, and in these interactions, several stockholders encouraged the company to explore strategic alternatives.’

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Vik Bajaj (Foresite)

Ex­clu­sive: Vik Ba­jaj set out al­most 2 years ago to hatch new com­pa­nies that would shake up health­care with da­ta sci­ence. Here are 5 di­rec­tions he's tak­ing at Fore­site Labs

If it was clear in late 2019 that the US healthcare system is poised for transformation, Vik Bajaj believes the Covid-19 pandemic rammed the gas pedal by laying bare the “fundamental inefficiencies and inequalities.”

Take, for instance, the idea that the most cost-effective way to treat disease is to catch it early. That was the mission at Grail, the high-flying cancer detection startup that he had been CSO of. But at Foresite, where he’s now managing director, they expected widespread emphasis on preventative care would take about a decade to achieve — as with many of the changes in business models that they were hoping for.