Gilead, Kite pen natural killer pact with little-known Australian cell therapy player

All the attention is currently laser-focused on Gilead Sciences' COVID-19 hopeful remdesivir, but the company itself is still penning deals outside of infectious disease.

Through its $12.9 billion biotech buy Kite Pharma, the Californian company has inked a new deal with an almost unknown Australian biotech: oNKo-innate.

The purpose of the deal is for Gilead and Kite to tap into the biotech’s natural killer (NK) work in order to seek out new cell therapies and build on its CAR-T research.

The three-year deal will see oNKo-innate use genomewide screening techniques and its tech to find new immune cell targets that boost NK cell anti-tumor immunity and to create NK cell therapies.

On the Gilead side, oNKo-innate will screen and seek out targets to seed its internal immuno-oncology discovery programs. And for Kite, oNKo-innate will “create and evaluate NK constructs for Kite’s development of next-generation cell therapies.”

Financials of the deal were not disclosed, apart from saying there was an upfront and biobucks, but no dollar value was given.

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NK cells come from the same family as T cells but work a little differently. T cells are part of the adaptive immune system, meaning they need priming to hunt down antigen-presenting invaders or tumor cells. NK cells, on the other hand, are part of the innate immune system and don’t need such priming to target and kill tumor cells.

One of the working theories behind NK cells is that they could clear the hurdles that have limited the success of CAR-T therapies in blood cancers. They could also cut down on nasty side effects of CAR-T such as cytokine release syndrome, which happens when the CAR-T cells activate the immune system too strongly. Other biotechs, such as Nkarta, Dragonfly Therapeutics and Kiadis, are also focused on this area.

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Peter Emtage, Ph.D., senior vice president of research at Kite, said: “Early clinical data utilizing adoptively transferred NK cells has been encouraging and we are excited by the opportunity to scientifically expand our capabilities in this area and to identify novel NK cell therapies to advance toward clinical development.”

Jai Rautela, Ph.D., co-founder and CEO of oNKo-innate, added: “With more than 20 years of collective academic expertise in NK cell biology, we have long believed in the potential for NK cells to play a role in cancer immunotherapy. We look forward to bringing this NK cell expertise and our unique screening techniques into a collaboration with Gilead and Kite to serve a common goal of discovering new treatments for patients.”