Natural killer biotech Artiva launches with $78M, industry veterans

A new San Diego biotech has come out of the shadows with a meaty $78 million series A and a next-gen immuno-oncology platform. It plans to start human testing this year.

Artiva Biotherapeutics is led by cell therapy and cancer specialists; its CEO, president and director is former Bellicum Pharma chief Tom Farrell, who will work with Jason Litten, M.D., its new chief medical officer, ex-VP of clinical development at Juno with stints at Clovis and Amgen.

The cash and the team are joining forces to develop off-the-shelf universal natural killer (NK) cells for use alongside monoclonal antibody therapy and tumor-targeting CAR-NK cell therapies.

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 oNKo-innate, Nkarta, Dragonfly Therapeutics and Kiadis, are also focused on this area.

Artiva’s initial pipeline includes AB-101, a universal NK cell therapy for use in combination with monoclonal antibodies. The company plans to enter the clinic this year with AB-101 in combination with an anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody for the treatment of relapsed refractory B-cell lymphoma.

It’s also working on AB-201, a new HER2-specific CAR-NK cell therapy for the treatment of HER2+ solid tumors, and AB-202, a CD19-specific CAR-NK cell therapy for the treatment of CD19+ B-cell malignancies.

“We have seen tremendous breakthroughs in redirecting immune cells against cancer, but patient access to these therapies has been limited by safety, scale, manufacturing, logistics, and cost issues,” said Farrell. “Our goal at Artiva is to do more, leveraging GC LabCell's foundational work on true off-the-shelf NK cells into a pipeline of product candidates that are accessible to any cancer patient who may benefit.”

Its financing was co-led by 5AM Ventures, venBio Partners and RA Capital Management and joined by Medivate Partners as well as seed investors and strategic partners GC LabCell and GC.