HebeCell lands $53M, Chinese collaborator to make a splash in busy CAR-NK space

More money is flowing into the natural killer (NK) cell therapy space. HebeCell is the latest biotech to grow its bank balance, raising $53 million in a round led by a Chinese drug developer to advance its off-the-shelf CAR-NK prospects. 

Interest in NK therapies has ticked up in recent years as researchers have identified the cells as a way to get around some of the limitations of T cells. Advocates of NK cells point to the relative ease with which they can be used in off-the-shelf therapies and their ability to penetrate solid tumors as ways they have advantages over T-cell-based therapies such as pioneering CAR-Ts Kymriah and Yescarta.

Massachusetts-based HebeCell has worked quietly over the past five years to establish itself in the nascent NK cell therapy space, leading to a series A round led by Jacobio Pharmaceuticals. Jacobio, a Beijing based oncology biotech that raised $174 million in an IPO last year, will work with HebeCell to develop CAR-NK therapies in cancer, viral infections and autoimmune diseases.

HebeCell, which is yet to disclose candidates or targets, will use the money to fund its move toward the clinic. The push toward human testing will build on HebeCell’s work to establish a process for turning induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into NK cells.

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Leading drug developers including Gilead and Johnson & Johnson have inked deals to access NK cell therapies derived from stem cells in recent years, reflecting evidence the approach can provide a renewable source of raw materials and support the industrialization of the sector. Fate Therapeutics and Shoreline Biosciences are among the biotechs to benefit from the interest of big biopharma and investors in the approach.

While other biotechs already have iPSC-CAR-NK therapies in the clinic, HebeCell claims its approach is differentiated from those of other companies in the space, notably through its use of a 3D platform that is designed to mimic the lymph nodes in which NK cells develop in the body.