Galway cancer therapy start-up ONK Therapeutics has raised another $21.5 million (€19 million) as it continues efforts to develop technology that enhances natural killer cells in the body's immune system to target cancers.
ONK has developed a process that genetically engineers natural killer cells to allow them to better pursue cancer cells that have made themselves invisible to normal natural killer (NK) cells.
It is currently targeting three oncology areas – relapsed multiple myeloma and acute myeloid leukaemia, both of which are cancers of the blood, and solid cancer tumours in areas including ovarian, breast and lung cancers.
The company said the money would allow it maintain its “strong momentum” as it runs pre-clinical studies, including proof of concept in vivo studies.
ONK chief executive Chris Nowers said that, within the next 18 months, the company had the potential for "multiple IND \[innovative new drug\] approvals to enable our evolution into a clinical-stage company".
The company is also working on developing manufacturing structures to deliver its technology. It said it was making “significant progress” in areas including its gene editing capability, efficient expansion techniques and its cryopreservation capability, where it uses very low temperature to preserve the integrity of its modified killer cells.
The aim is to allow the manufacture of large numbers of batches of natural killer cell therapy from a single umbilical cord.
The funding round was led by two of its existing investors – Acorn Bioventures and ALSHC. ONK was the first Irish investment for US biotech investor Acorn back in 2020 when it was part of an $8 million funding round.
ALSHC is the investment vehicle of a small group led by Irish serial medtech entrepreneur Seamus Mulligan – most notably the man behind Narcan nasal spray used to revive victims of opioid overdose. He has been an early stage investor in ONK.
They are joined by another US investor, Boston-based Cormorant Asset Management, which was among the most active biotech investors last year, putting $4.6 billion into 42 separate funding rounds, of which it was the lead investor in eight. The ONK funding is its second to be announced in the new year.
Enterprise Ireland is also an investor in the business.
Mr Nowers said: "We thank our existing investors for their continued support and are pleased to welcome Cormorant Asset Management as a new investor and Andy Phillips to our board, as we continue against our goal to optimally engineer, off-the-shelf, NK cell therapies to potentially cure patients with cancer."
Unlike personalised medicine, where a patient’s own cells are engineered and reintroduced to the body to fight disease, ONK are looking to engineer cells that can be used in many different patients suffering from these cancers.
Prof Michael O’Dwyer, who founded the company in 2015 and is its chief scientific officer said: “We are taking a completely novel approach by addressing NK cell metabolism from the inside out, fundamentally engineering NK cells to better treat cancer by increasing their resistance to the adverse metabolic conditions generated by tumours.”
Prof O'Dwyer is also a professor of haematology at the National University of Ireland, Galway.