- Agreement with the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway), supervised by leading expert in the cellular environment in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), Dr. Eva Szegezdi
- Funded by ONK Therapeutics, the research will support engineering and optimization of its dual-targeted NK cell therapy candidate for AML (ONKT104)
- Aims to explore the potential added benefit of certain gene edits to enhance NK cell cytotoxicity, cytokine production and persistence in the cancer microenvironment in the context of AML
Galway, Ireland and San Diego, USA, 17 May 2021 – ONK Therapeutics Ltd, an innovative natural killer (NK) cell therapy company, today announced that it has entered into a research collaboration with the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) which provides access to unique expertise in evaluating the cancer cell microenvironment in Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) and targeting of AML stem cells in models mimicking the bone marrow microenvironment. The research will support the optimization of ONK Therapeutics’ dual-targeted NK cell therapy program, ONKT104, being developed for the treatment of AML.
ONK Therapeutics will fund a year-long research program in the laboratory of Dr. Eva Szegezdi, lecturer in Biochemistry, NUI Galway, Head of the Blood Cancer Network Ireland. She has particular expertise in the AML microenvironment as well as cell death pathways, especially those initiated by ‘so-called’ death ligands (e.g. TRAIL) used by effector immune cells.
AML is the most common form of acute leukemia in adults. It is estimated that some 21,000 patients in the US and 18,000 in Europe are diagnosed with AML each year. It has a high unmet medical need having the lowest survival rate of all types of leukemia.
ONKT104 is a dual-targeted NK cell engineered to express a humanized scFv targeting the leukemic stem cell antigen CLL-1 (also known as CLEC12A) obtained through an option license agreement from Cellerant Therapeutics, together with ONK Therapeutics’ proprietary high-affinity TRAIL variant, targeting death receptor 4 (DR4). CLL-1 is selectively expressed on leukemic stem cells with no expression on normal hematopoietic stem cells, which ensures safer targeting and a lower risk of prolonged toxicity to normal bone marrow cells. In pre-clinical research studies, a monoclonal antibody therapy targeting CLL-1 has revealed potential efficacy against AML cells and shown to be effective in reducing AML burden in a xenograft model. In addition, a CLL-1 CAR-T cell model has shown promising pre-clinical activity and has recently entered the clinic.
ONK Therapeutics believes its dual-targeted NK cell therapy approach may have several advantages over a CAR-T approach including shorter persistence of NK cells, reducing the risk of sustained neutropenia; proven inherent anti-AML activity of NK cells; the reduced likelihood of toxicity due to cytokine release syndrome or neurotoxicity; and the logistically simpler allogeneic, off-the-shelf nature of NK cells, reducing time to treatment once suitable patients are identified.
AML is a very challenging disease in which to achieve sustained, long term disease control due to the high plasticity and adaptability of AML stem cells, and the tendency for resistant cells to emerge and grow. In addition to targeting CLL-1, this project will evaluate multi-targeted approaches by combined targeting of other leukemia stem cell antigens.
ONK Therapeutics’ founder and CSO Prof Michael O’Dwyer said, “Alongside our in-house research, the project team at NUI Galway will explore construct design, as well as the potential added benefit of certain gene edits to enhance NK cell cytotoxicity, cytokine production and persistence in the context of AML strengthening our ONKT104 program. The aim is to select an optimized candidate to take forward into clinical development as a treatment for patients with relapsed/refractory AML.”
Dr. Eva Szegezdi said, “The project will evaluate different constructs that may be able to achieve synergistic killing of cancer cells and reduce the emergence of disease resistance. These include the co-expression of CARs targeting other AML antigens, in addition to CLL-1, such as CD96, TIM3, and CD38 alongside the TRAIL variant.”
ONK Therapeutics was formed based on technology and intellectual property developed at NUI Galway by Prof. Michael O’Dwyer, who retains his academic position as Professor of Haematology, Consultant Haematologist and HRB Clinician Scientist, alongside his role at the company. Over the past 12 months, ONK Therapeutics has expanded its team and operations at its headquarters and R&D facility in Ireland’s med-tech hub in Galway, where it now has 16 employees, with an additional 5 employees based in its US subsidiary in San Diego.
ONK Therapeutics – www.onktherapeutics.com
ONK Therapeutics Ltd is an innovative cell therapy company dedicated to developing the next generation of ‘off-the-shelf’, dual-targeted NK cell therapies targeting solid and hematological cancers.
The company was founded in 2015, by Prof. O’Dwyer MD, of NUI Galway, an expert in translational multiple myeloma research, the tumor microenvironment, and exploitation of NK cells as cellular immunotherapy. Its core proprietary off-the-shelf cell therapy platform is based on a dual-targeted NK cell expressing both a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) targeting a known tumor antigen and a TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand variant (TRAILv) targeting the death receptor pathway (i.e. DR4 or DR5). This unique approach has the potential to enhance efficacy by addressing both intrinsic (e.g. CAR engagement of a tumor-specific antigen) and extrinsic (e.g. signaling through the death receptor pathway) apoptotic pathways and to reduce the susceptibility to possible target antigen escape through the engagement of tumor antigen-independent TRAILv.
Its pre-clinical pipeline comprises four programs:
- The lead program, ONKT101, is a dual-targeted NK cell therapy incorporating a CD19 CAR and TRAILv targeting DR5, intended for the treatment of relapsed/refractory B cell malignancies. This program is partnered with Avectas, with the company having responsibility for development to Phase 1
- ONKT102 combines an optimized affinity CD38 CAR and a TRAILv targeting DR5, intended for the treatment of patients with relapsed/refractory multiple myeloma
- ONKT103 combines a TA-MUC1 CAR with a TRAILv targeting DR5, for the treatment of solid tumors
- ONKT104 combines a CLL-1 CAR with a TRAILv targeting DR4, for the treatment of AML
In addition to the unique off-the-shelf, dual-targeted NK cell therapy platform, the company has a strong focus on engineering strategies to enhance tumor homing and persistence in-vivo, and overcome exhaustion in the tumor microenvironment, including the exploration of proprietary gene edits, such as the deletion of checkpoint inhibitory receptors in NK cells.
ONK Therapeutics is headquartered in the med-tech hub of Galway, Ireland, with a wholly-owned US subsidiary, ONK Therapeutics, Inc. based at JLabs @ San Diego. Shareholders include Acorn Bioventures, ALSHC (principally Seamus Mulligan), and Enterprise Ireland.
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