11:54 AM
 | 
Mar 15, 2018
 |  BC Innovations  |  Product R&D

Engineered to kill

How Nkarta’s approach to engineering NK cells stands out from the pack

Nkarta Inc. is betting that boosting NK cells’ intrinsic ability to discriminate between cancer and healthy cells will increase their efficacy as anti-cancer agents and lower their risk of toxicity compared with the more common tactic of adding in chimeric antigen receptors.

The company was formed to develop technology from scientific founder Dario Campana, and has been incubating in Johnson & Johnson’s South San Francisco JLABS site since 2015, with undisclosed funding from SR One, New Enterprise Associates and Novo Ventures.

Last month, Paul Hastings joined as president and CEO. Hastings was previously chairman, president and CEO of cancer company OncoMed Pharmaceuticals Inc.

Campana is professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Immunopathology and Cell Therapy at the National University of Singapore. He’s also a founder of T cell therapy company Unum Therapeutics Inc.

Nkarta joins a field of at least nine other companies developing NK cell therapies as cytotoxic agents for cancer (see “NK Cells Across Generations”).

Table: NK cells across generations

While Nkarta Inc. and two other companies have skipped to next-generation NK cell technologies, the majority of the competitors have first-generation products in the clinic. NK cell therapy companies initially went to the clinic with non-engineered versions of the innate immune cells, but many are now working on next-generation technologies. At least 10 companies have disclosed clinical or preclinical NK cell programs. Among the field’s nine clinical candidates, seven involve non-engineered versions of the cells. Next-generation therapies coming down the line typically incorporate genetic modifications to add new functionalities to the cells. Six out of the eight companies that have disclosed next-gen technologies are adding CAR constructs to enhance tumor targeting, and two are adding receptors that bind therapeutic cancer antibodies. Nkarta Inc. stands alone in its approach of engineering the cells to overexpress an endogenous receptor complex plus a membrane-bound growth factor. (A) Partnered with Oxford BioMedica plc (LSE:OXB); Source: BCIQ: BioCentury Online Intelligence; company websites and interviews

CompanyFirst-generation productDescriptionStatusIndicationNext-generation technology
Green Cross Corp. (KSE:006280)MG4101Expanded allogeneic NK cellsPhase IIHepatocellular carcinoma; acute myelogenous leukemia (AML)Unspecified gene modifications (A)
NantKwest Inc. (NASDAQ:NK)Activated Natural Killer cells (aNK cells)Allogeneic activated NK cellsPhase IIMerkel cell carcinomaCARs; antibody receptors
PersonGen Biomedicine (Suzhou) Co. Ltd.Anti-CD19 CAR-NK cellsNK cells engineered with CARs against CD19Phase I/IICD19+ leukemia and lymphomaCARs
Anti-CD33 CAR-NK cellsNK cells engineered with CARs against CD33Phase I/IICD33+ AML
CellProtect Nordic Pharmaceuticals ABCellProtect

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