Kite's former EU chief Nowers joins NK cell startup ONK as CEO

Chris Nowers
Chris Nowers (Kite Pharma)

Chris Nowers has joined natural killer (NK) cell therapy startup ONK Therapeutics as CEO. ONK disclosed the appointment of Nowers, the former head of Kite Pharma’s European operation, alongside news of an $8 million financing round.

Nowers made his name in cell therapy circles during a two-year stint heading up the European operation of Kite Pharma as it prepared to bring its pioneering CAR-T treatment to market. Having taken Kite to the cusp of approval in Europe, Nowers left to take up the CEO role at Cell Medica, only to leave around 18 months later as the startup rebranded and moved its headquarters to Houston.

Now, Nowers, who worked at Bristol Myers Squibb before joining Kite, has landed the CEO role at another European cell therapy startup. ONK has spent the past five years building on the NK cell and apoptosis work Michael O'Dwyer and his collaborators carried out at the National University of Ireland Galway.

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The work has given ONK a three-candidate pipeline led by a dual-targeted NK cell therapy that has a CD19 CAR and membrane-bound TNF-related apoptosis inducing ligand variant (TRAILv) targeting the death receptor pathway. The Avectas-partnered candidate, ONKT101, is in lead optimization.

Nowers will lead ONK through a period in which it uses the proceeds of recent financings to advance ONKT101 and two other candidates through preclinical development. Acorn Bioventures joined with existing shareholders to provide the latest funding boost. The $8 million committed by the investors brought the total raised by ONK in the past six months up toward $15 million.  

The investors have come on board to support ONK’s efforts to unlock the therapeutic potential of TRAILv. Evidence of the role TRAIL plays in inducing apoptosis has attracted multiple research groups. The first TRAIL-receptor agonists underwhelmed in the clinic, but studies showing inhibitors of the target suppress the cytotoxic activity of CAR-Ts have driven renewed interest among developers of cell therapies. 

ONK has built its pipeline around TRAILv in the belief it can enhance the efficacy of CARs. By targeting a tumor-specific antigen using the CAR and acting on the death receptor pathway via TRAILv, ONK thinks it can act on both intrinsic and extrinsic apoptotic pathways while countering the risk of target antigen escape. 

ONKT101, which ONK will take to phase 1 before passing off to Avectas, is set to be an early proving ground for that idea. ONK has TRAILv candidates featuring CD38 and MUC-1 CARs in earlier-stage development. 

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