Most deals in biotech come with hefty upfront payments attached, and the promise of big biobucks if a program works out. Not this one.
Nkarta has struck what CEO Paul Hastings calls a “real collaboration” with CRISPR Therapeutics to co-develop and commercialize two CAR-NK therapies, in addition to an NK+T program. The duo will split all R&D costs — and any worldwide profits — 50/50, Hastings said.
“What we have here are two equal companies, two equal partners,” he told Endpoints News.
CRISPR has been hard at work over the last few years, using its gene editing tech to engineer cells from healthy donors into an attack vehicle for cancer. In October, the company announced that two of four patients given a specific dose of its CAR-T candidate for CD19+ B cell malignancies achieved complete responses (the results, however, were marred by the death of a patient in a higher dose cohort).
Nkarta believes natural killer cells offer advantages that T cells lack. Since they are part of the innate immune system, NK cells can identify and hit a broader range of targets presented on tumor cells, the company told Endpoints back in 2019. And because foreign NK cells don’t cause graft-versus-host disease, they’re an attractive target for allogeneic cell therapies.
“While we are bullish about our allogeneic CAR-T approach, we believe that NK cells can be an important part of future oncology therapies,” CRISPR CEO Samarth Kulkarni said in an email.
Hastings says CRISPR and Nkarta will start with a CAR-NK candidate targeting CD70 for a “bunch of different indications,” mostly in solid tumors. The target for their second CAR-NK program has yet to be revealed. And with the NK+T program, the companies will look to combine the short-acting, tumor-killing punch of NK cells with the longer-acting adaptive immunity of T cells.
In addition to those programs, Nkarta can license CRISPR’s technology to edit five gene targets in an unlimited number of its own NK cell therapies. For each non-collaboration candidate that includes a gene editing target licensed from CRISPR, Nkarta will owe the company milestones and royalties on net sales.
Nkarta, which had six employees when it launched in 2015, is now up to 110 staffers. Back in July, the biotech raised nearly $290 million in an IPO.
“This collaboration will speed up the research process to get future collaboration products as well as our own products into the clinic using a gene editing technology,” Hastings said. “That’s really the impetus, was to speed the research and development process as much as we could, and that’s what this technology will enable us to do together with our partners.”