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A cancer drug startup banks new funds for NK cell therapy

Dive Brief:

  • Wugen, a startup developing “off-the-shelf” cell therapies for cancer, has raised $172 million in a Series B financing led by Abingworth and Tybourne Capital Management.


  • The St. Louis-based biotech plans to use the cash to boost spending on a range of pipeline products while advancing its lead product, dubbed WU-NK-101, into a global study later this year for acute myeloid leukemia. Wugen says its technology can be used to target a variety of blood cancers and solid tumors.


  • As part of the financing, Wugen is adding executives from Abingworth and Tybourne to its board, as well as one from Intermediate Capital Group, a new investor in the latest round. Fidelity Management & Research, Sands Capital, Aisling Capital Management, Alexandria Venture Investments, Velosity Capital and Falcon Edge Capital were also new investors.


Dive Insight:

The cash infusion reflects growing interest in the “natural killer” cell technology being pursued by Wugen and several other companies. Wugen describes its memory NK cells as “hyper-functional, long-lasting immune cells” that offer an alternative to T cells used to fight cancer in CAR-T therapies such as Novartis’ Kymriah.

While Kymriah is made from a patient’s own white blood cells, which are extracted and then reinjected, Wugen takes its cells from healthy donors and manipulates them to improve their cancer-fighting ability. The resulting therapy could offer the potential for outpatient treatment.

Wugen is still in the early stages of testing its lead therapy. The company’s technology is designed to overcome the neurological and immune side effects seen with other cell therapies.

Abingworth Managing Director Bali Muralidhar, one of the executives joining Wugen’s board, said the company’s work with Washington University in St. Louis is a major draw. Wugen entered an exclusive license agreement with the university in 2018 for CAR-T technology and then earlier this year expanded the collaboration to include the NK program.

The research area has seen a surge of activity this year. In May, Fate Therapeutics announced that two early-stage studies of NK therapies showed promise in treating leukemia. Also that month, CRISPR Therapeutics and Nkarta said they would work together on two CAR NK therapies. And in January, Merck signed onto to help develop at least two candidates from Artiva Biotherapeutics.