ONK Snags $21.5 Million for Natural Killer Cell Therapies

Natural Killer Cell

Ireland-based ONK Therapeutics is making waves in the industry to optimally engineer NK cells to perform better in the hostile tumor microenvironment. ONK announced an infusion of $21.5 million to propel their NK-powpered programs towards IND-enabling studies.  

Cell therapies offer the alluring possibility of a one-shot cure for cancer. While the initial focus has primarily been on engineered CAR T cell therapies, natural killer (NK) cells may just be edging T cells out as the next big thing.  

Natural killer cell therapies offer the cancer-slaying power of CAR T cells but without the significant toxicities that plague the T cell therapies - graft-versus-host disease and cytokine release syndrome. By avoiding side effects like GVHD, NK therapies have the potential for repeat treatments.  

NK cells are part of the innate immune response that responds to any cell that appears foreign, so they don't have to be engineered to fight a specific threat. But they face their own disadvantages like not lasting long in the body or multiplying as easily as the CAR T cells.  

ONK's approach applies gene editing to the NK cell therapies to "maximize the cytotoxic potential, metabolic health and persistence of the engineered cells." These NK cells have added tumor antigen targeting with prolonged serial killing capabilities. 

In the solid tumor microenvironment, NK cell metabolism is impaired by factors like low glucose levels, oxygen deprivation and inhibiting cytokines. Last June, ONK announced a collaboration with a group at Trinity College Dublin, led by Dr. David Finlay. 

"We are taking a completely novel approach by addressing NK cell metabolism from the inside out, fundamentally engineering NK cells to better treat cancer by increasing their resistance to the adverse metabolic conditions generated by tumors," said Prof. Michael O'Dwyer, founder and CSO at ONK Therapeutics. 

Currently, ONK has three programs in the pipeline. Two focus on blood cancers – relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma and AML. The third is tackling solid tumors like ovarian, breast and NSCLC. The biotech is also exploring two programs utilizing CISH KO NK cells derived from umbilical cord and iPSC derived NK cells.  

This week's Series A will also boost the company's progress towards the goal of GMP manufacturing capabilities. 

Some bigger names in the pharma world have joined the NK bandwagon through partnerships with burgeoning biotech companies. Last November, Merck licensed a second NK immunotherapy candidate from Dragonfly Therapeutics. The partnership began in 2018 with a deal valued at $695 million for Dragonfly's TriNKET technology, tri-specific, NK cell engager therapies. Dragonfly also has partnered with Bristol Myers SquibbAbbVie and Celgene around its NK platform.  

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