Patrick Soon-Shiong Initiates Reverse Merger of NantKwest and ImmunityBio

Merger

Shares of NantKwest were up more than 27% in premarket trading after the company announced a stock-for-stock reverse merger with privately-held ImmunityBio to create a leading immunotherapy and cell therapy company focused on oncology and infectious disease.

Biotech entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong, who founded both companies and currently serves as chief executive officer of ImmunityBio, merged them in order to combine NantKwest’s Natural Killer (NK) cell platform and ImmunityBio’s immunotherapy fusion protein, immunomodulator, and adenovirus platforms have already resulted in complete responses in late stage, difficult to treat metastatic cancers. The combined companies bring together 11 Phase II / III clinical trials across oncology and infectious disease that use combined immunotherapy platforms, as well as a broad late-stage pipeline for solid tumors including bladder, lung, breast, and pancreatic in addition to infectious disease programs for HIV and COVID-19.

“To date complete responses have been noted in patients with second line or greater metastatic pancreatic cancer, triple-negative breast cancer, head and neck cancer, and Merkel Cell Carcinoma. This strong track record of combination immunotherapies across the two companies’ platforms supports the potential of the combined assets to transform the future of immunotherapy beyond checkpoints by synergizing NantKwest’s cell-based therapies with ImmunityBio’s immunotherapy platforms,” the companies said in a joint statement.

Soon-Shiong said the goal of the combined company will be the development of next-generation immunotherapies for cancer and infectious diseases. Soon-Shiong said the combination of capabilities will create a “powerful and broad product portfolio that can activate both the innate (natural killer cell and macrophage) and adaptive (T cell) immune systems to create long-term immunological memory.” He added the pipeline is designed to eliminate the need for high-dose chemotherapy, improve the outcomes of current CAR T cell therapies, and extend beyond checkpoint inhibitors.

In a separate announcement this morning, ImmunityBio said its IL-15 fusion protein, Anktiva, achieved a 71% complete response in a Phase II/III study for non-muscle invasive bladder cancer in high-risk carcinoma in situ (CIS) disease. 

At one time, Soon-Shiong, who developed Bristol Myers Squibb’s Abraxane, was a leading figure in oncology circles and was one of the leading voices behind the 2016-announced MoonShot 2020 coalition of companies  focused on bringing the “promise of combined immunotherapy as the next-generation standard of cancer care” to children diagnosed with the disease. Not only did that goal never really pan out, it has also fallen under a shadow following a 2017 report that the moonshot was nothing but a marketing scheme to promote NantKwest.

Last year, San Diego-based Sorrento Therapeutics filed a lawsuit against Soon-Shiong claiming he acquired a cancer asset from the company to develop, but did nothing with it in order to protect Abraxane revenue streams. In 2017, he was at the center of accusations that a $12 million grant made to the University of Utah for genetic sequencing benefitted his umbrella company NantHealth far more than the university.

As the companies merge, Soon-Shiong will serve as executive chairman of the new entity and Richard Adcock, the current CEO of NantKwest, will helm the new entity. Following the closing of the transaction, the combined company will assume the ImmunityBio name and continue to be listed on the NASDAQ exchange under the ticker symbol IBRX. The combined company will be headquartered at ImmunityBio’s offices in Culver City, California.

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