Artiva Biotherapeutics has raised $120 million to advance a pipeline of allogeneic natural killer (NK) cell therapies. The Merck-partnered biotech has an unmodified NK cell therapy in the clinic and a clutch of CAR-engineered candidates following close behind.
San Diego-based Artiva is one of a number of biotechs built on the idea that NK cells are the key to therapeutic opportunities that T cells have so far failed to unlock. Notably, NK cells readily penetrate solid tumors and can be given off the shelf without causing graft-versus-host disease, simplifying the task of creating industrialized, mass-market cell therapies.
Artiva’s effort to realize the potential of NK cells has attracted the attention of Venrock Healthcare Capital Partners, which led the $120 million series B investment in the biotech. Venrock was joined in the syndicate by other new investors plus existing backers 5AM Ventures, RA Capital Management and venBio Partners.
The financing, which comes less than one year after Artiva broke cover with a $78 million series A round, equips the biotech to advance a pipeline led by AB-101. Artiva is testing the unmodified NK cell therapy in combination with anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody rituximab to assess its ability to enhance antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC).
Artiva, which has a second ADCC program in preclinical, and many of its peers see opportunities to use unmodified NK cells effectively in some areas. However, engineering will be needed to get the most out of NK cells in other indications. Artiva’s CAR-NK pipeline is led by HER2 and CD19 programs that are at the IND-enabling stage.
The pipeline is supported by a manufacturing platform designed to enable large-scale, industrialized production and cryopreservation of off-the-shelf NK cell therapies. Speaking last month, Artiva CEO Fred Aslan, M.D., framed the manufacturing platform as a factor in Merck’s decision to pay $30 million upfront for the rights to two off-the-shelf solid tumor cell therapies.