Celgene expands Dragonfly NK cells pact to the tune of $50M

Celgene is doubling down on its cancer immunotherapy pact with Dragonfly Therapeutics, paying $50 million up front for access to four more natural killer (NK) cell-based programs. The pair initially tied up in June 2017, when Celgene forked over $33 million for the option to license four assets aimed at the treatment of blood cancers.

The original four assets are designed to treat acute myeloid leukemia, multiple myeloma and other hematological cancers, while the new four include treatments in development for solid tumors, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Dragonfly said in a statement.

If Celgene pulls the trigger on any of its now eight options, it will be on the hook for potential milestone and royalty payments, as well as “other material considerations.”

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Dragonfly’s pipeline is based on its TriNKET, or Tri-specific, NK cell Engager Therapeutics, which bind to surface proteins expressed on both cancer cells and NK cells. This alerts the NK cells to the cancer; they then directly attack the tumor while also recruiting other immune cells to join in. T cells, the basis of many current immuno-oncology approaches, then directly attack the tumor, while B cells produce antibodies to help the fight against the cancer. 

The company’s pipeline is still preclinical, but the approach caught Celgene’s eye last year as an “increasingly critical” area of hematologic research, as Rupert Vessey, Celgene’s president of research and early development, said at the time.

And it looks like the technology has been delivering: "We have watched the field of NK-cell biology and immunotherapy evolve considerably since entering our initial collaboration with Dragonfly and are pleased to expand our access to their novel therapeutic candidates," Vessey said in the statement. 

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"Based on the evidence we've seen to date, we believe that Dragonfly's novel TriNKET technology provides a unique platform to support the discovery and development of immunotherapy drug candidates that may help cancer patients, with potential both as monotherapy and in combination with existing therapeutics."

The expanded deal with Celgene comes about six weeks after Dragonfly inked a multi-target solid tumor pact with Merck that could be worth $695 million per program.

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify that Dragonfly could pick up $695 million in upfront and milestone payments per target in its multi-target deal with Merck.