Dive Insight:

Little data on the effectiveness of CAR-NK therapies is available, yet they are drawing increasing interest from major drugmakers. While similar in concept to cell-based treatments like Novartis’ Kymriah, CAR-NK therapies draw on natural killer cells instead of T cells to attack cancers.

Manufacturing CAR-T therapies is also a complicated process, involving the extraction of a patient’s own cells, which are then engineered and reinjected into the patient. Artiva’s CAR-NK program, by contrast, uses donated natural killer cells derived from umbilical cord blood, allowing the company to produce a medicine that can be used “off the shelf.” Such an approach, if proven effective, could offer a major advantage over patient-derived cell therapies.

Early data appear to support some of these potential advantages. A study of 11 patients led by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston suggested that CAR-NK could attack cancer cells while avoiding some serious side effects associated with CAR-T. Japan’s largest drugmaker, Takeda, has licensed that therapy from MD Anderson.

Other drug companies have taken notice as well. In November, Sanofi agreed to pay 308 million euros, or roughly $374 million, to the Dutch biotech Kiadis Pharma for access to the company’s cell therapy technology. And last April, Johnson & Johnson announced a $100 million deal with Fate Therapeutics to develop CAR-NK and CAR-T products.

While Merck is working to expand its pipeline, the company will likely be hard-pressed to find a new treatment that can compete with Keytruda, an immuno-oncology drug that generated $3.7 billion in revenue during just the third quarter of 2020.

Currently, only two CAR-T treatments are approved: Kymriah and Gilead’s Yescarta. Kymriah had sales of $141 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, while Yescarta had sales of $138 million in the third quarter of 2020. Gilead announces fourth-quarter results on Feb. 4.