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Celgene bags option on NK cell-based blood cancer assets

Celgene has landed an option on four natural killer (NK) cell-based blood cancer therapeutics in a deal with Dragonfly Therapeutics. The agreement sees Celgene hand over $33 million and commit to more in milestones to access next-generation immuno-oncology candidates aimed at some of its core therapeutic areas.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Dragonfly has given Celgene the exclusive option to license up to four assets designed to treat acute myeloid leukemia, multiple myeloma and other hematological cancers. The candidates will emerge from a platform that Dragonfly sees establishing NK cell alongside T cells as a critical component of the push to weaponize the immune system to defeat cancers.

Dragonfly’s platform generates bridges designed to bind to proteins found on the surface of tumor cells and NK cells. The aim is to stimulate NK cells. Once activated and aware of the presence of the cancer cells, NK cells attack tumors directly while also enlisting the support of T and B cells. T cells, the cornerstone of current immuno-oncology approaches, then join the direct attack on the tumor, while B cells produce antibodies to help the fight against the cancer.

The potential of the approach has attracted the attention of Celgene.

“NK-cell biology and immunotherapy are increasingly critical areas of hematologic research and we are looking forward to working with Dragonfly’s team of world-leading experts,” Rupert Vessey, D.Phil., Celgene’s president of research and early development, said in a statement. “This collaboration will leverage the strengths of each company as we work together to bring innovative therapies to patients.”

The discovery-stage biotech is a long way from showing its biological linker molecules can trigger the desired immune responses. But Celgene, in keeping with its willingness to make early bets on promising biotechs, has seen enough potential in Dragonfly to follow up last month’s equity investment with the R&D pact.

At this early stage, the perception of potential rests partly on the identities of the people involved with Dragonfly. Tyler Jacks, Ph.D., who heads up the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT and co-chairs the White House’s Cancer Moonshot, is one cofounder. UC Berkeley NK cell specialist David Raulet, Ph.D., is another. Jacks and Raulet are joined by serial environmental entrepreneur Bill Haney, who brings his experience of building startups, albeit outside of life sciences, to the role of CEO of Dragonfly.

The trio have put together a scientific advisory board that features Nobel Prize winner Harold Varmus, M.D.—a former director of the National Cancer Institute—and other researchers from MIT, Stanford University and MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Dragonfly has used these credentials to raise an undisclosed amount of cash from an unusual mix of investors. Celgene sits alongside members of the Disney family and the Duke of Bedford on the list of people and organizations to put money into Dragonfly to date.

The involvement of Celgene in a discovery-stage company that has largely eschewed traditional sources of investment in favor of cash from family offices is in line with its history of spotting and backing biotechs earlier than its peers. Celgene, under the management of George Golumbeski, Ph.D., and Tom Daniel, M.D., got in on the ground floor at companies including Agios Pharmaceuticals, Bluebird Bio and Foundation Medicine. And it has had the confidence to put up eye-watering sums of money, such as the $1 billion it gave Juno Therapeutics in return for equity and an option on its immuno-oncology programs.


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