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.

Tom Far­rell

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.”

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

David Meek, new Mirati CEO (Marlene Awaad/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Fresh off Fer­Gene's melt­down, David Meek takes over at Mi­rati with lead KRAS drug rac­ing to an ap­proval

In the insular world of biotech, a spectacular failure can sometimes stay on any executive’s record for a long time. But for David Meek, the man at the helm of FerGene’s recent implosion, two questionable exits made way for what could be an excellent rebound.

Meek, most recently FerGene’s CEO and a past head at Ipsen, has become CEO at Mirati Therapeutics, taking the reins from founding CEO Charles Baum, who will step over into the role of president and head of R&D, according to a release.

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis' gene ther­a­py group? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

Jacob Van Naarden (Eli Lilly)

Ex­clu­sives: Eli Lil­ly out to crash the megablock­buster PD-(L)1 par­ty with 'dis­rup­tive' pric­ing; re­veals can­cer biotech buy­out

It’s taken 7 years, but Eli Lilly is promising to finally start hammering the small and affluent PD-(L)1 club with a “disruptive” pricing strategy for their checkpoint therapy allied with China’s Innovent.

Lilly in-licensed global rights to sintilimab a year ago, building on the China alliance they have with Innovent. That cost the pharma giant $200 million in cash upfront, which they plan to capitalize on now with a long-awaited plan to bust up the high-price market in lung cancer and other cancers that have created a market worth tens of billions of dollars.

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Jay Bradner (Jeff Rumans for Endpoints News)

Div­ing deep­er in­to in­her­it­ed reti­nal dis­or­ders, No­var­tis gob­bles up an­oth­er bite-sized op­to­ge­net­ics biotech

Right about a year ago, a Novartis team led by Jay Bradner and Cynthia Grosskreutz at NIBR swooped in to scoop up a Cambridge, MA-based opthalmology gene therapy company called Vedere. Their focus was on a specific market niche: inherited retinal dystrophies that include a wide range of genetic retinal disorders marked by the loss of photoreceptor cells and progressive vision loss.

But that was just the first deal that whet their appetite.

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Af­ter sell­ing to Genen­tech, the old Je­cure team is back at an RNA-fo­cused start­up — and more en­thu­si­as­tic than ever

When Genentech swooped in to buy NASH-focused Jecure Therapeutics back in 2018, a handful of the startup’s executives weren’t quite ready to disperse.

It had been just three years since Jecure launched with a preclinical portfolio of NLRP3 inhibitors — and the takeover came sooner than anyone, including CEO Jeff Stafford, had expected. So he got talking with James Veal and Gretchen Bain, two serial entrepreneurs in charge of Jecure’s R&D.

Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

Zol­gens­ma patent spat brews be­tween No­var­tis and Re­genxbio as top No­var­tis gene ther­a­py ex­ec de­parts

Regenxbio, a small licensor of gene therapy viral vectors spun out from the University of Pennsylvania, is now finding itself in the middle of some major league patent fights.

In addition to a patent suit with Sarepta Therapeutics from last September, Novartis, is now trying to push its smaller partner out of the way. The Swiss biopharma licensed Regenxbio’s AAV9 vector for its $2.1 million spinal muscular atrophy therapy Zolgensma.

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Rafaèle Tordjman (Jeito Capital)

Con­ti­nu­ity and di­ver­si­ty: Rafaèle Tord­j­man's women-led VC firm tops out first fund at $630M

For a first-time fund, Jeito Capital talks a lot about continuity.

Rafaèle Tordjman had spotlighted that concept ever since she started building the firm in 2018, promising to go the extra mile(s) with biotech entrepreneurs while pushing them to reach patients faster.

Coincidentally, the lack of continuity was one of the sore spots listed in a report about the European healthcare sector published that same year by the European Investment Bank — whose fund is one of the LPs, alongside the American pension fund Teacher Retirement System of Texas and Singapore’s Temasek, to help Jeito close its first fund at $630 million (€534 million). As previously reported, Sanofi had chimed in €50 million, marking its first investment in a French life sciences fund.