ONK Therapeutics Ltd, an innovative natural killer (NK) cell therapy company, today announced that it has been awarded an Innovation Partnership Programme (IPP) grant by Enterprise Ireland (EI) to fund collaborative research at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, led by Dr. David Finlay to optimize the metabolism and engineering of NK cells for improved cancer therapies.
Dr. Finlay, Associate Prof. in Immunometabolism in the Schools of Biochemistry and Immunology, and Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, at Trinity College Dublin is a world-leading expert in NK cell metabolism. His group was the first to characterize cellular metabolic pathways in NK cells and to demonstrate the importance of NK cellular metabolism for the cytotoxic anti-tumor functions of these cells.
Active research is ongoing to optimize the efficacy of NK cell therapies against solid tumors by addressing the immunosuppressive tumor microenvironment (TME), where NK cell metabolism is impaired due to low glucose levels, oxygen deprivation (hypoxia), presence of inhibitory cytokines, and the higher concentration of tumor-derived metabolic end products, such as lactate.
To date, such improvement strategies to boost the efficacy of NK cells in the tumor microenvironment of solid cancers have centred on adding cytokines and other factors.
"We are taking a completely novel approach by addressing NK cell metabolism from the inside out, fundamentally engineering NK cells to better treat cancer by increasing their resistance to the adverse metabolic conditions generated by tumors," said Prof. Michael O'Dwyer, founder and CSO at ONK Therapeutics. "In working with Dr. Finlay, we are collaborating with the pioneering expert in the field of NK immunometabolism."
Under the terms of the collaboration, Trinity College Dublin retains any intellectual property (IP) arising out of the research collaboration, with ONK Therapeutics having an exclusive option to license the IP.
"In order to understand why cellular cancer immunotherapies are not effective in all cancer patients, scientists are actively trying to identify why certain patients respond and some do not and why some types of cancer can be successfully treated while others cannot. One emerging reason is that tumors can create metabolically unfavorable environments that might impact the effectiveness of immune cell therapies. My laboratory has the foremost expertise in NK cell metabolism placing us in a very strong position to address this challenge," said Dr. Finlay.
"Manipulating NK cell metabolism to enhance anti-cancer function is completely novel and is only possible based on our discoveries over the past five years," he said. "Our goal is to discover new targets within NK cells to be edited through CRISPR deletion or overexpression strategies. Detailed evaluation of the resistance of these cells to the adverse environments generated by tumors should support the development of enhanced NK cell therapies. It is an innovative approach to developing improved cellular therapies to treat cancer, in particular solid tumors."
Lawrence Lee, Manager, Innovation Partnership Programme Enterprise Ireland, said, "We are delighted to support this innovative research that has the potential to generate real and tangible benefits for cancer patients in Ireland and across the globe. The project is aligned with Enterprise Ireland's strategic goal of supporting world-leading research in Ireland and fostering relationships between industry and academic partners. Research initiatives such as this have the capacity to further advance Ireland's international research reputation and lay the foundations for the jobs of the future.
The Enterprise Ireland funding covers 80% of the €373,295 project costs, with the industry partner, ONK Therapeutics providing €75,000 (20%) of the project costs. Trinity College Dublin will be recruiting two additional post-doctoral scientists into Dr. Finlay's group over the two years of the project.
Chris Nowers, CEO of ONK Therapeutics, said, "We are highly ambitious in our goal to become a world-leading engineered NK cell therapy company that not only treats, but ultimately cures cancer. Our academic partnerships will deliver rich research insights and reinforce our own expertise as we aim to deliver new therapeutic options for patients in need."