Natural killers are an emerging approach to fight inflammatory diseases and cancer. These immune actors, that specifically regulate the activity of the immune system, are attracting the attention of several small startups and more than a few big Pharmas.
The immune system includes a set of body defenses, that fight foreign forms. But external bodies aren’t the only threat to human health: during the carcinogenesis process, self-cells become invaders to the own body. However, the immune system has also its own mechanisms to recognize and fight the transformation of self-constituents.
The immune system is organized in two collaborative structures: the Innate immune system and the Adaptative immune system. Immunotherapy uses components from the innate system to ensure that the patient’s immune system fights the disease itself. However, this approach is not a new concept. In fact, the term immunotherapy was officially coined in 1890.
Obviously, the field has radically changed over the last centuries, especially during last decades, where advances in molecular genetics have enable researchers to move from unspecific activators to targeted immunotherapies. And this is where Natural Killer cells, or NK cells, come into play. NK cells are a component of the innate immune system which does not directly attack invading microbes. Rather, these cells destroy compromised host cells, such as tumor cells or virus-infected cells. NK cells regulate the activity of some immune cells, enabling their activation, or slowing them down.
Bristol-Myers Squibb developed the first antibody using this type of mechanism, which was approved as a cancer therapy back in 2011. The big shot is now developing another antibody-based drug in partnership with Innate Pharma, a rising star in the field with three big pharmas knocking at its door: Bristol-Myers Squibb, AstraZeneca and Novo Nordisk. With two first-in-class checkpoint inhibitors in clinical trials and a portfolio of preclinical immunomodulating and cytotoxic antibodies, Innate Pharma explores the untapped field of innate immunity receptors and has built its way up, placing it in a dominant position.
Nevertheless, Innate Pharma is not alone in the field. Amongst its competitors, there is a European company with a curious course of events: Affimed. The company launched its IPO in September 2014 with unsatisfactory results. On the €67.5M Affimed expected to raise, only €50.3M were actually generated. The story gets worse as Affimed’s valuation went even lower after the IPO. However, on last April 24th, the company saw its valuation increase by 42%, despite the company not making any announcements. The reason behind this increment may lie externally to the company: the boost coincides with the announcement of the partnership between Innate and Astra Zeneca.
The interest in Natural killers stimulated by the agreement clearly benefited Affimed, who announced just yesterday a Proposed Public Offering of common stock. The company intends to profit from this enthusiasm, raising €31.4M in the offering. Wise move, guys.