Nkarta nets $114M to push natural killer cell therapies into the clinic

Amgen Ventures and Deerfield Management chipped in to a $114 million series B round for Nkarta, which now has the runway to start clinical trials for its natural killer (NK) cell therapy, build a manufacturing site and advance its earlier-stage pipeline. 

From chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR-T) therapies to T-cell receptor treatments, cell therapy in cancer has focused on T cells. Nkarta has zeroed in on NK cells, which 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. 

Nkarta believes using NK cells could clear the hurdles that have limited the success of CAR-T therapies in blood cancers. It 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. 

The new capital will bankroll clinical programs in blood cancers and solid tumors for Nkarta’s allogeneic, or “off-the-shelf," NK cell therapy, it said in a statement. The treatment, NKX101, targets a cell surface receptor called NKG2D found on various immune cells. It will also support IND-enabling and clinical studies of its CAR-NK program targeting CD19 in B-cell malignancies. 

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Nkarta will finish building a GMP manufacturing site in South San Francisco that will supply treatments for its early-stage studies, and it will keep chugging along at more NK cell-based candidates, the company said. 

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"Since the company’s founding, we have worked to bring our potentially transformative, engineered and off-the-shelf NK cell therapies to patients," said Nkarta CEO Paul Hastings in the statement. "With multiple INDs expected in the next year for an array of hematologic and solid tumors, now is the time to fund the company for its next stage of growth.” 

Samsara BioCapital led the round, with Amgen Ventures, Deerfield, Life Science Partners, Logos Capital, RA Capital Management and its existing backers NEA Ventures, Novo Holdings and SR One joining in.