Wugen unveils $172M to take natural killer cell therapies to solid tumors

Acute myelocytic leukemia, AML

Acute myelocytic leukemia, AML


The first wave of cell therapies included personalized cancer treatments made from a patient’s own immune cells in a lengthy, cumbersome, and expensive process. Wugen is developing therapies made with cells sourced from healthy donors, which offers the potential for “off-the-shelf” treatments. The stealthy biotech’s lead program is already in human testing. As the company prepares to advance more programs to the clinic, it has raised $172 million in financing for its research.

Abingworth and Tybourne Capital Management led the Series B round of financing that was announced Thursday.

Wugen, which splits its operations between St. Louis and San Diego, is developing therapies based on a type of immune cell called natural killer (NK) cells. These cells have evolved to fight cancer and infection, but they are rare. Wugen sources its NK cells from healthy donors, then engineers them to make them better at killing cancer targets and also to improve how long they last in the body. Those cells are then multiplied and cryopreserved, standing ready as an off-the-shelf treatment option for use when needed. It calls these cells memory NK cells.

The lead program in Wugen’s pipeline is WU-NK-101, an NK therapy in development for acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). The initial cell therapies, chimeric antigen receptor T cells, or CAR T, won their first FDA approvals in blood cancers but they haven’t been able to treat solid tumors. Wugen aims to overcome those limitations. The company has encouraging data from early-stage clinical testing.

“In an ongoing Phase 1/2 clinical trial, our lead product WU-NK-101 has demonstrated an impressive complete response rate in relapsed/refractory AML and we look forward to advancing into a global multi-center study later this year,” Wugen president and CEO Dan Kemp said in a prepared statement.

The lead program is also in in preclinical development for head and neck cancer, as well as melanoma. Another NK program, WK-NK-201, is in the discovery stage for solid tumors.

In addition to its NK research, Wugen is developing off-the-shelf CAR T therapies. The T cells, sourced from healthy donors, are engineered to remove components that can direct the T cell to kill a patient’s own cells or trigger a deadly immune response. Wugen’s CAR T therapy WU-CART-007 is being readied for Phase 1 testing in T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare cancer most commonly found in children and young adults. Both the NK and CAR T technologies were licensed from Washington University.

Wugen said it will use the financing to continue clinical development of its memory NK cell platform, and advance studies in patients with severe AML and other cancer indications, including solid tumors. The company also plans to use the cash to bring its broader pipeline into the clinic.

The latest Wugen financing added new investors Fidelity Management & Research Company, Intermediate Capital Group, Sands Capital, Aisling Capital Management, Alexandria Venture Investments, Velosity Capital, and Falcon Edge Capital. Earlier investors RiverVest Venture Partners, LYZZ Capital, and Lightchain Capital also participated.

In connection with the financing, the Wugen board of directors is adding Bali Muralidhar, managing partner at Abingworth, Bosun Hau, managing director at Tybourne Capital Management, and Peter Kiener, venture partner at ICG.

Public domain image from the National Cancer Institute