Patrick Soon-Shiong merges troubled 'moon shot' NantKwest and cell therapy play ImmunityBio in late-stage expansion
Once one of the hottest brands in biotech, Patrick Soon-Shiong’s next-gen cancer brainchild NantKwest has taken its lumps in recent years with little to show from its natural killer cell platform. Now, with his cell therapy play ImmunityBio moving much faster in the clinic, Soon-Shiong will merge the two companies together to streamline their market aspirations.
NantKwest will reverse merge with Soon-Shiong’s ImmunityBio in a stock-for-stock transaction to bring 11 late-stage natural killer and cell therapy candidates for oncology and infectious diseases under a single roof, the companies said Monday.
Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and a big-ticket name in biopharma, will stay on as executive chairman while Rich Adcock, NantKwest’s reigning CEO, will sidestep into the same role at the new firm. The merger is set to close in the first half of 2021 with ImmunityBio investors taking the lion’s share of the new company at a fully diluted 78%.
Soon-Shiong stepped down from the CEO role in October in favor of Adcock five years into NantKwest’s whirlwind public offering. The off-the-shelf natural killer play, which Soon-Shiong described as his “cancer moon shot,” was once the most valuable IPO in biotech before seeing its share prices plummet with little clinical data to hold up and a very public reconsideration of the company’s hype.
Fortunes changed in early 2020 after Soon-Shiong touted early results showing one pancreatic cancer patient with a complete response, putting wind in the flagging company’s sales. On Friday, NantKwest $NK shares closed trading at $10.26.
So with little still to show for his efforts, Soon-Shiong will guide a new firm with a more diversified pipeline and a little bit more to show on the clinical side. Immediately following news of the merger Monday, ImmunityBio, a biotech targeting the innate and adaptive immune system, trumpeted results from a Phase II/III trial showing its IL-15″superagonist” Anktiva (N-803) posted a 72% complete response rate in BCG unresponsive non-muscle invasive bladder cancer after 12 months of treatment.
That candidate comes from ImmunityBio’s immunotherapy fusion protein, immunomodulator, and adenovirus platforms, which the biotech is also utilizing to chase a Covid-19 vaccine. That candidate is angling for a Phase I human study after completely clearing trial primates’ airways in a U.S. government-sponsored trial, the company recently said.
“What distinguishes the merged entity is the late stage immunotherapy product pipeline that is designed to eliminate the need for high-dose chemotherapy, improve the outcomes of current CAR T cell therapies, and extend beyond checkpoint inhibitors,” Soon-Shiong said in a release. “With 13 clinical trials across multiple tumor types at Phase I to III and with the combined talent in research, clinical development and manufacturing, the merged entity is poised to be a leader in the immunotherapy space.”
In all, the newco will have 13 assets in clinical trials, according to a release, with IP running out to 2035. The company will go online with a combined 200,000 square feet of manufacturing and clinical space as it takes multiple runs at the market.