- Intellia Therapeutics will work with Ireland-based biotech ONK Therapeutics to develop treatments that use "natural killer" immune cells, an unproven but emerging form of cancer immunotherapy that is drawing considerable interest from drugmakers.
- Per terms of the deal, ONK will get access to Intellia's gene editing technology and associated delivery tools to make up to five NK cell-based treatments. ONK will lead development and could pay Intellia as much as $184 million per program in milestone payments as well as royalties.
- Intellia has an option to evenly split the worldwide profits and costs for two programs in the deal and may also acquire full U.S. rights to those candidates. The agreement doesn't cover ONK's most advanced prospect, which is in preclinical testing for multiple myeloma.
The leading developers of CRISPR gene editing have made headlines in the past year with promising study results for medicines targeting rare diseases of the blood, liver and eye. Alongside those therapies, CRISPR Therapeutics, Editas Medicine and Intellia also have been exploring using CRISPR to develop better cell therapies for cancer.
Marrying gene editing and cell therapy offers a number of advantages. For example, genetic modifications can make cells harvested from donors or patients better cancer killers.
CRISPR biotechs increasingly also have veered toward allogeneic, or "off-the-shelf," cell therapy, which is meant to be a more convenient form of the personalized CAR-T treatments now available for multiple blood cancers.
CRISPR Therapeutics has three allogeneic programs in clinical trials for different blood cancers. Editas is developing some as well through a deal with Bluerock Therapeutics. And with Intellia's deal on Tuesday, all three companies are now working on off-the-shelf immunotherapies that rely on natural killer, or "NK" cells.
NK cells are part of the body's initial, "innate" response against pathogens, whereas the T cells featured in CAR-T treatments are involved in its second, "adaptive" attack. NK cells are thought to be potentially safer than their T cell counterparts, cheaper to produce and better able to distinguish between cancerous cells and healthy ones. That potential, along with some promising early clinical results, has led to a recent string of investment and deals.
For example, CRISPR Therapeutics forged a wide-ranging deal with NK cell therapy developer Nkarta last year. That alliance includes not only a plan to genetically modify NK cells with CRISPR, but also to make an unusual treatment harnessing both NK cells and T cells. Editas is developing a solid tumor treatment with BlueRock. Gilead, Merck & Co., and Johnson & Johnson also have made investments in NK cell therapies.
The major question hanging over NK cell therapies is how long their effects will last compared to T cell medicines, and, relatedly, what role they may eventually play in cancer treatment. ONK Therapeutics CEO Chris Nowers noted in a statement that using the two companies' technologies together could lead to NK cells with "enhanced" persistence.
The Irish biotech raised about $22 million in a Series A round last June. Aside from its myeloma program, ONK has preclinical treatments for leukemia and solid tumors.