Out of jobs, a pair of early cell therapy executives went to Seoul, came back with a new company, $70M and a plan to leapfrog natural killer competitors
Tom Farrell didn’t have much to do after Bellicum announced in January 2017 that they were bringing in a new CEO. He had led the CAR-T company for over a decade, since before Carl June’s New England Journal of Medicine paper had made cell therapy the hottest thing in cancer research. Now he was facing an 18-month non-compete.
So he worked quickly when, not long after that clock expired in 2018, a banker who helped take Bellicum public told him about a South Korean company called Green Cross LabCell that had built a natural killer cell factory and was looking to develop therapies off it. Farrell hopped a plane to Seoul.
It was “hugely impressive,” Farrell told Endpoints News. “There was nothing [else] I came across that was truly disruptive from a business model perspective.”
A year and a half later, Farrell has his new company. Called Artiva, it launches with $78 million in Series A funding and an exclusive deal with Green Cross to push some of their natural killer cell technology into the clinic. They’ll start with a therapy that combines NKs with an approved antibody therapy like rituximab to improve the antibody’s effectiveness. Behind that, they’re working on CAR-NK therapy and, longer term, gene-edited CAR-NK cells. RA Capital Management, venBio and 5AM Ventures led the round.
Artiva joins what, after many years, has recently become a booming field. In February, MD Anderson showed that a Takeda-licensed CAR-NK therapy cleared tumors completely in 7 of 11 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma patients. Two months later, J&J gave Fate Therapeutics, one of the earliest biotechs in the field, an up-to $3.1 billion deal for their CAR-NK and CAR-T therapies. The Big Pharmas are joined by a slate of recent upstarts, including Celularity, Nkarta, NantKwest, and Cytovia.
Unlike the other newcomers, Artiva makes virtually no claim on having original science. In fact, Farrell said, biotech’s emphasis on novel technologies is part of why cell therapy has advanced only “incrementally” since the approval of the first two CAR-T therapies. Industry hasn’t focused enough on addressing the manufacturing issues that have made therapies so costly and difficult to scale, he said.
Lewis Lanier, an immunologist at the University of California, San Francisco and an early pioneer in NK cell research, said Artiva would still face the same questions other drug developers face — will some patient reject the cells? Will the natural killer cells actually last a significant amount of time after infusion? — but the collaboration could give them an edge.
“The Korean Green Cross manufacturing facility is really first rate, that’s where the advantage is,” Lanier, who is not involved in Artiva, told Endpoints. “The science is really routine, they’re not doing anything particularly innovative.”
For years, NK cells have been viewed as one of the key potential ways of making off-the-shelf cell therapy. Part of the innate immune system, implanting these cells from donors doesn’t lead to the same resistance that donor T cells can. One of the problems, though, is that NKs are “finicky,” as Lanier puts it, vastly more difficult to grow and manipulate in a lab. Only recently have a couple companies figured out ways to do it consistently. Fate, for instance, uses master lines of iPSC stem cells.
At the Green Cross facility Farrell toured two Novembers ago, the South Korean company had refined a process to derive NK cells from donated umbilical cord blood and cryo-preserve it. A week after his tour, Farrell flew to San Diego for the ASH conference, where he ran into Pete Flynn, another longtime biotech executive out of a job. Flynn had run early development for Fate in its early years before leaving to run R&D for the anti-obesity company Orexigen, which had just gone bankrupt.
Farrell explained what he saw in Seoul and the two debated different approaches to off-the-shelf therapy. They figured the manufacturing base could be a launching pad.
“Even though we’re a Series A company, we’re looking to become the go-to NK cell,” Flynn, now COO, told Endpoints. “Basically all the pieces are in place already, whereas for some of those other companies, there might still be some work to do.”