Takeda eyes pathway to natural killer therapies, teeing up $100M to partner with KSQ for its CRISPR-screened molecules
The potential applications for CRISPR/Cas9 continue to grow as drugmakers look for novel ways to use the powerful gene editing platform to rework drug discovery and development. Japanese drugmaker Takeda has dabbled on the gene editing front, and now it’s pairing up with a biotech using CRISPR screening to laser in on oncology candidates.
Takeda will shell out $100 million in upfront cash and preclinical development milestones to partner with Boston-area biotech KSQ Therapeutics and its CRISPR-screened natural killer cell therapies. The pact will immediately include two T cell programs already identified and validated, KSQ said, with the option to expand into two other target areas.
On top of royalty rights for sales outside the US, KSQ will also have profit sharing rights on a product of its choice in the US, the biotech said. In all, each program could be eligible for up to $400 million with downstream milestones considered.
The crux of the partnership will use KSQ’s tech — a CRISPR screening platform that parses through thousands of oncogenes in one go to identify possible target areas — and Takeda’s development resources to bring NK candidates to the clinic to target a wide variety of cancers and cancerous tumors.
In separate interviews with Endpoints News, executives from both companies were bullish about the possibilities the collaboration will bring not only to their companies, but to the ongoing fight to create substantive oncological therapeutics.
“It’s a great validation of our platform,” said Frank Stegmeier, KSQ’s chief scientific officer. “I think what I’m particularly excited about is it was very clear from the beginning of our discussions, all the way through the end of the discussions (with Takeda), that we have a very aligned excitement about the potential of next generation oncology drugs for cancer patients.”
Once its CRISPR platform became operational, it quickly became clear that KSQ was identifying more target areas for oncology therapeutics than it could possibly address on its own, Stegmeier said.
“For the first time, it allows us to systematically interrogate the function of all 20,000 genes functionally in different disease models, and this really takes the guessing out of drug target discovery in a way rather than picking one target,” he said. “We can systematically test the function of all 20,000 genes in parallel.”
What the company needed, Stegmeier said, was a partner to actually develop the drug candidates after CRISPR discovered the most promising target areas — a partner that “shares our excitement” around the therapeutic potential of the target areas, but is better equipped in the drug discovery arena.
As Loïc Vincent, head of Takeda’s oncology drug discovery unit and immunology unit, tells it, the partnership was symbiotic from the very beginning.
“What we are going to try to achieve together with KSQ is to advance these two novel targets. Put our resources that we have at Takeda, put our brains together to try to drug those targets that are not low-hanging fruit,” Vincent said. “This is where we are interested as a company to invest on these targets where there are some challenges in druggability. But where we can increase the chance of trying to crack the code on … those targets and bring them into the clinic.”
There was one key element that drew Takeda to partner with KSQ, Vincent said: CRISPR.
“They have this platform up and running where they invested a lot in terms of energy, scientific foundation and also resources. During the past years, they were able to not only identify targets, but to put together a very compelling data package to validate the targets,” he said. “You know, it’s easy to do target identification. It’s much more challenging to validate the targets, and then to define what are your top targets and where you should develop drug discovery programs.”