ImmuneBridge raises $12 million to source natural killer cell therapies from umbilical cord blood

By Jonathan Smith

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Natural killer cells Cell therapies Cancer

The biotech startup Immune Bridge has bagged $12 million in a seed financing round to drive the development of natural killer (NK) cells that can be used in cell therapies for cancer.

The round was co-led by Insight Partners and M Ventures, the corporate venture capital arm of Merck KGaA, with the participation of One Way Ventures and Gaingels.

CAR-T cell therapies have been one of the most exciting developments in immuno-oncology over the last decade. They typically involve extracting a patient’s immune T cells, genetically engineering the cells in a lab and then reinfusing the cells into the patient. While they have shown impressive benefits in patients with blood cancer, these so-called autologous CAR-T therapies can take a long time to produce; this limitation can be crucial in patients with very late-stage cancer.

A faster alternative for manufacturing cell therapies is by sourcing them from healthy donors, known as allogeneic cell therapies. However, allogeneic T cell therapies have the risk of attacking a patient’s own body in a condition called graft-versus-host disease, or causing life-threatening inflammation in another condition called a cytokine storm.

ImmuneBridge is one of many companies that have turned to NK cells as a solution for allogeneic cancer cell therapies. These cells are part of the innate immune system, and can attack tumor cells faster and with less preparation than T cells. They also carry less risk of triggering graft-versus-host disease and cytokine storms than T cell therapies, making them well suited to allogeneic cell therapies.

However, there are often obstacles to sourcing NK cells for cell therapy. For example, the cells can be grown from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) sourced from donors, but the process is slow and costly, making it difficult to scale up. In addition, it can be difficult to find suitable donor matches for a patient population.

To get around this issue, ImmuneBridge was founded in San Francisco in 2018 to source NK cells from donated umbilical cord blood.

Working with public cord blood banks, the company extracts hematopoietic stem cells from cord blood, expands them and grows them into NK cells. In the process, the company screens the cord blood for the most effective cells for its chosen indication, and can also genetically engineer them to further boost their therapeutic potential. This approach is designed to make it easier to find the optimal immune cells for an NK cell therapy than using iPSCs, and make it faster to find donor matches to target populations.

“Cell therapy is a new pillar of medicine and is inextricably human. Cell therapy developers fear donor-to-donor variability, yet we humans are unapologetically diverse in our innate immune systems. It is natural to identify the most potent therapies from among human diversity—and we can employ genetic engineering to enhance them,” said Peretz Partensky, co-founder and CEO of ImmuneBridge. “We dare to not fear our immunological diversity but to embrace it.”

The seed investment will be used to help ImmuneBridge create a screening dataset that the company can use to identify the best NK cells for cell therapies. The company also plans to demonstrate its platform can manufacture NK cells at scale, and to develop a lead product at the preclinical stage. While its initial focus is on NK cells, the company has the option to develop therapies based on other types of immune cells as well.

There are many other efforts ongoing to develop NK cell therapies​ derived from cord blood. For example, the U.S. FDA recently granted Fast Track Designation to a cord-blood-derived NK cell therapy developed by Artiva Therapeutics. Artiva’s candidate is currently being tested in a phase 1/2 trial in combination with the approved antibody drug rituximab for the treatment of a form of blood cancer.

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