Emerging Drug Developer: NKT Therapeutics

Over the past few years, researchers have been pushing the envelope on the therapeutic potential of killer T cells, the immune system's powerful assassins.

Newton, MA-based start-up NKT Therapeutics, though, is focusing on an elite group of T cells.

"There are many different kinds of T cells," explains Robert Mashal, the CEO of the fledgling developer. "NK T cells are a small subset of the whole T-cell population. They represent less than 1 percent of the total T-cell population. And the therapeutics we have are more specific to NK T cells."

NKT is working to advance programs that will concentrate on the healing power that can be tapped by activating and inhibiting the activity of that subset of T cells. By blocking the function of NK T cells, says Mashal, researchers believe that they can take an inside track to addressing asthma and dermatitis. And the developer plans to concentrate its initial work on asthma.

Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center researchers Steven Balk, MD, PhD, and Mark Exley, PhD, cofounded the company along with Brian Wilson, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital.

There are plenty of other big diseases on the biotech's potential hit list: cancer, infectious diseases as well as autoimmune diseases. But those indications will have to wait, for now.

Last week, NKT announced its Series A, a relatively modest $8 million which Mashal says will be enough to take the company out about two years, when it should be on the verge of clinical trials. At that point Mashal plans to look for additional capital, possibly from investors or development partners--or a mixture of the two.

One of its investors--MedImmune Ventures, which co-led the round with SV Life Sciences--is the investment arm of Maryland-based MedImmune, which has already demonstrated a significant interest in the same field that NKT is exploring. Mashal goes to some pains to underscore that MedImmune right now is an investor only. Its equity stake in the company gives it a great perch to observe NKT's progress, but no favorite treatment when the company is ready to partner up.

And that day is coming.

"I think that no small company can take an asthma drug all the way through approval without partnering with a larger pharmaceutical partner," says the CEO.

Mashal, a physician who went on to work at McKinsey before becoming a program executive at Vertex and then a partner at Boston Millennia Partners, has been through the start-up phase before. He had been CEO of Alinea Pharmaceuticals when it announced a $45 million first round in 2005.

Alinea is still around, Mashal confirms, but he declines to go into any detail about its status.

NKT will remain small for some time, but Mashal is planning to start hiring. Right now NKT has three full-time workers and counts eight to 10 consultants working with the developer. Mashal expects to hire up to 12 people over the next two years. And that may trigger a relocation.

"At a certain point the company is going to grow," says the CEO. "At that point we'll start looking for space, and the most likely outcome is that we'll be in an area with a higher concentration of biotech companies."

Emerging Drug Developer: NKT Therapeutics

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