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ONK Therapeutics Announces Three Exclusive Option License Agreements, Which Extend and Strengthen its Dual-Targeted NK Cell Therapy Pipeline

  • Three new exclusive option license agreements expand the depth and breadth of ONK’s pre-clinical pipeline
  • A humanized scFv targeting CLEC12A licensed from Cellerant Therapeutics, creates a fourth pre-clinical program, ONKT104, for the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML)
  • A humanized scFv targeting a novel tumor-specific MUC1 glycopeptide epitope licensed from Glycotope GmbH, strengthens pre-clinical program ONKT103, for solid tumors
  • A CCR7 homing receptor licensed from the National Institute of Health (NIH), for use in the pre-clinical ONKT101 program, for relapsed/refractory B cell malignancies

Galway, Ireland, and San Diego, USA, 17 December 2020 … ONK Therapeutics Ltd, an innovative natural killer (NK) cell therapy company, today announced that it has secured three new exclusive option license agreements which strengthen its off-the-shelf, dual-targeted natural killer (NK) cell therapy platform and extend its pre-clinical pipeline to four programs across both hematological and solid tumors.

The first option agreement, with Cellerant Therapeutics, gives exclusive rights to a humanized CLEC12A scFv binder. CLEC12A is strongly expressed by blasts in the majority of AML patients. The option to license has enabled ONK to expand its pre-clinical product portfolio, launching a fourth program (ONKT104). This dual-targeted approach combines the CLEC12A CAR with a TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand variant (TRAILv) targeting death receptor 4 (DR4).

“While expressed on leukemic stem cells, CLEC12A is absent from normal hematopoietic stem cells and we thus expect that our dual-targeted NK cell therapy approach should enable safe targeting, with a reduced risk of prolonged aplasia in AML,” said Prof Michael O’Dwyer MD, ONK Therapeutics’ co-founder, and CSO.

The second agreement in-licenses a humanized, tumor-specific antibody targeting an aberrantly glycosylated tumor-associated form of MUC1 (TA-MUC1) from Glycotope GmbH. Multiple solid tumor types express the mucin MUC1, including non-small cell lung cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer. This antibody will be integrated into ONK’s pre-clinical program ONKT103, for solid tumors.

Non-selective targeting of MUC1 could be problematic since the target is also expressed by healthy tissues, but O’Dwyer explains how ONK’s dual-targeted approach can be used to address this. “We have designed a CAR tailored to the glycosylation pattern distinct to tumor-associated MUC1 with specific recognition of the carbohydrate antigens Tn and T on MUC1, the expression of which is restricted to cancer cells. Glycotope has identified the glycosylation pattern as a way to unlock the potential of TA-MUC1 as a solid tumor target. ONK is thus set to bring the natural benefits of NK cells over T cells to bear on TA-MUC1, in a tumor-specific fashion, while also further boosting efficacy and countering resistance through the use of our TRAIL variant targeting DR5,” he said.

ONK’s unique platform approach combines the expression of a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) and a high affinity, membrane-bound TRAILv. The incorporation of these two humanized scFvs has the potential to minimize the risk of immunogenicity in the allogeneic setting.

ONK is also exploring several innovative strategies to improve the homing of NK cells. This is an important consideration as ex-vivo expansion can lead to changes in chemokine receptor expression. Through this new license agreement with the NIH, ONK plans to enforce the expression of CCR7, which is downregulated on NK cell expansion. This may improve the homing of NK cells to lymph nodes and is expected to be particularly useful for ONK’s off-the-shelf CD19 program targeting B cell lymphoma, ONKT101, which is partnered with Avectas.

ONK is making rapid progress since it announced its most recent financing in October. Chris Nowers, ex Kite Pharma Head of Europe, who joined at that time as Chief Executive Officer, said: “The recent American Society of Hematology meeting highlighted the NK cell therapy area as offering great hope as the next generation of advanced cell therapies. We believe our best-in-class off-the-shelf, dual-targeted NK cell therapy platform has the potential to improve performance and overcome some of the shortcomings seen with earlier approaches. These new licensing activities strengthen and expand our programs and illustrate our ambition and strategy to become a leader in this exciting field.”

The company recently expanded its operations into the USA, moving into JLABS @ San Diego, Johnson & Johnson Innovation’s flagship facility, at the heart of San Diego’s precision medicine and cell therapy cluster. This represents a second facility that complements its main R&D team and operations in Galway, Ireland. The company’s recruitment drive across both facilities has been rapid and the company continues to expand its capability in key areas, including NK cell biology, construct design, gene editing, and process development. 

ONK Therapeutics

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 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 CLEC12A CAR with a TRAILv targeting DR4, for the treatment of AML

In addition to the unique dual-targeted NK cell therapy platform, the company has a strong research focus on strategies to enhance homing and persistence, and overcome exhaustion, 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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About Avectas -  

Avectas is a cell engineering technology business that has developed a unique delivery platform, Solupore® to enable the ex vivo manufacture of cell therapy products, which have high in-vivo functionality.

Glycotope –

Glycotope is a biotechnology company utilizing a proprietary technology platform to develop highly tumor-specific monoclonal antibodies called GlycoBodies. GlycoBodies bind to targets (GlycoTargets) tumor-specific carbohydrate structure dependent, enabling the development of highly-specific immunotherapies across a broad range of cancer indications. Glycotope has to date discovered in excess of 150 GlycoTargets with GlycoBodies against eight of these targets currently under development.

Each GlycoBody can be developed in an array of modalities with different modes of action providing a unique offering in the (immuno) oncology space. Currently, six clinical and pre-clinical programs based on the GlycoBody technology are under development by Glycotope or its licensing partners.

Media enquiries (for ONK Therapeutics):


Sue Charles, Charles Consultants - +44 7968 726585


Ray Gordon, Gordon MRM - +353 87 2417373

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Last Updated: 17-Dec-2020