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Immune Cell Cancer Biotech Gains $172M in New Funds

Natural killer cell

Natural killer cell (NIAID, Flickr)

15 July 2021. A biotechnology company developing cancer therapies with natural killer cells in the immune system is raising $172 million in its second venture round. Wugen Inc. in St. Louis, a three year-old enterprise spun off from labs at Washington University in St. Louis, modifies natural killer cells for longer lifetimes to treat blood-related and solid tumor cancers.

Like their cousins B- and T-cells, natural killer cells are white blood cells, which act against cells infected by viruses and in tumors. They’re called “natural killers” for their innate ability to seek out and attack pathogens and tumors without priming or prior activation. Wugen says it enhances natural killer cells by blocking receptors that limit cell activity, while adding more activating receptors and cancer-killing molecules. The company also freezes these memory NK cells, as they’re called, to make the cells more of an off-the-shelf product. Wugen is developing as well engineered donated T-cells in the immune system, designed to express chimeric antigen receptors or CARs that attack cancer cells, and do not invoke a damaging immune response.

In development for blood-related and solid tumor cancers

Wugen licenses its natural killer and T-cell technologies from the labs of the company’s scientific founders at Washington University in St. Louis: John DiPersio, Todd Fehniger, Matthew Cooper, and Melissa Berrien-Elliott. Cooper is also Wugen’s chief scientist, while DiPersio and Fehniger serve as scientific advisers. All of the founders collaborated on a study showing engineered natural killer cells can express multiple cancer-killing protein signals, which act against lab mice grafted with lymphoma cells. Fehringer and Berrien-Elliott also partnered on a study showing engineered natural killer cells act on lab mice induced with leukemia.

The company’s lead product, code-named WU-NK-101 is being tested in a mid-stage clinical trial in patients with relapsed or non-responsive cases of acute myeloid leukemia and myelodysplastic syndrome. WU-NK-101 is also in preclinical testing as a treatment for solid-tumor melanoma and head-and-neck cancer. Dan Kemp, Wugen’s president and CEO, says in a company statement, “We have tremendous confidence that our off-the-shelf memory NK cell platform will give rise to a significant pipeline of highly effective and safe anti-cancer therapies.”

Wugen Inc. is raising $172 million in its second venture funding round led by life science investors Abingworth and Tybourne Capital Management. Joining the round are new investors Fidelity Management & Research Company, Intermediate Capital Group, Sands Capital, Aisling Capital Management, Alexandria Venture Investments, Velosity Capital and Falcon Edge Capital. Also taking part are existing investors RiverVest Venture Partners, LYZZ Capital, and Lightchain Capital. Industry newsletter Endpoints News says the company raised $36 million in its first venture round last year.

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