Nkarta Therapeutics Inc.'s CEO, Paul Hastings, said while the clever spelling of the company's name puts its natural killer cell platform at the fore, he is also prompted more often than not to have to spell it out, just to make sure there's no mistake. Still, he added, the occasional hotel bill is sent to Encarta instead of Nkarta.
The South San Francisco-based company's newly completed and oversubscribed $114 million series B financing may help the name become better known and eliminate mistakes like that. The money will go to support two clinical trial programs of NKX-101, the company's natural killer cell therapy for patients with hematologic malignancies or solid tumors. It is also eyeing clinical trials of CAR-NK, which targets CD19 in B-cell malignancies. Hastings said he's looking at three INDs he would like to file on two programs in the next 12 months.
The series B, which gets Nkarta into the clinic for proof-of-concept research sometime in the second half of 2020, also allows the company to build its own GMP-compliant clinical manufacturing facility, 4,000 square feet of self determination in South San Francisco to supply investigational product for its early stage trials, according to Hastings.
"It puts us in charge of our own destiny," he told BioWorld. "The process is the product."
Hastings is well placed to see the advantages. Before coming to Nkarta in March 2018, he was chairman and CEO of Oncomed Pharmaceuticals Inc., where had been since 2006. He has also been CEO of QLT Inc., a biotechnology company focused on ocular disease; president and CEO of Axys Pharmaceuticals Inc., which was acquired by Celera Corp. in 2001; and president of Chiron Biopharmaceuticals, a division of Chiron Corp. There is also his time at Genzyme Corp., where he was president of Genzyme Therapeutics Europe as well as president of Genzyme Therapeutics.
Nkarta's vice president of development and manufacturing is Ralph Brandenberger, who, as senior director of process development at Neurona Therapeutics Inc., created the manufacturing strategy for Neurona's cell therapy platform. The senior vice president and chief scientific officer is James Trager, who was vice president of R&D at Dendreon Pharmaceuticals LLC, where he was responsible for product development, clinical immunology, analytical development and process automation, supporting the late-stage development of sipuleucel-T through its clinical study, approval and commercialization.
At the head of Nkarta's pipeline is NKX-101, which targets NKG2D, an activating receptor on the surface of natural killer cells, and is designed to kill abnormal cells and recruit adaptive immune effectors. The goal is to generate supplies of NK cells and engineer enhanced NK cell recognition of tumor targets. The company has a worldwide exclusive license agreement for proprietary natural killer cell engineering tech that's owned by the National University of Singapore and St. Jude Children's Research hospital, a deal that was cut in June 2018.
"We can quickly add new targets to these NK cells and develop new therapeutics," Hastings added.
Nkarta now has 37 employees and that will expand to about 50 by the end of this year and up to about 70 in 2020.
Fundraising is always an ongoing process, Hastings said, whenever there's a financing of this size.
"You must have relationships that last over a period of time," he said. "We started officially on this series B at J.P. Morgan in January, just talking to folks and putting it out there. From that point until now, we've been meeting with venture [capital] groups, and it's been a careful job of us selecting them and them selecting us. The cell therapy space is a different operational journey than other kinds of therapies. The manufacturing and the clinical trials are done in different ways."
The series B financing was led by a new company investor, Samsara Biocapital, along with existing investors NEA Ventures, Novo Holdings A/S and SR One, which helped lead the charge when Nkarta was created in 2015. Other new investors include Amgen Ventures, Deerfield Management, Life Science Partners, Logos Capital and RA Capital Management.
In conjunction with the financing, Mike Dybbs, a partner at Samsara, and Fouad Azzam, general partner at LSP, joined the Nkarta's board.