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Biotech Cofounded By BIDMC Scientists Targets Natural Killer T-Cells

Company will work to develop therapies based on NKT immune cells, with first program focused on treatments for asthma

NKT Therapeutics, Inc., a Newton-based biotechnology company cofounded by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) researchers Steven Balk, MD, PhD, and Mark Exley, PhD, has announced that it has closed an $8M Series A venture financing co-led by venture capital firms SV Life Sciences (SVLS) and MedImmune Ventures.

The company will work to develop therapies based on natural killer T-cells, with their first program focusing on treatments for asthma.

"Doctors Balk and Exley [together with the company's third cofounder Brian Wilson, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital] have extensive expertise in the applications of immunotherapeutic agents to human disease," explains Mark Chalek, Chief of Business Ventures at BIDMC. "Their research has helped to establish the important role of NKT cells in the regulation of many immune responses."

Although NKT cells represent approximately .01 percent of the body's total lymphocyte population, they serve as a central regulator of the immune system, playing a critical role in health and disease, according to Balk, a member of the Division of Hematology/Oncology at BIDMC. "By regulating the innate arm of the immune system, NKT cells help to destroy threatening pathogens and cancers," he explains. "And by regulating the immune system's adaptive arm, they help to modulate antibody and cell-mediated immunity, which offers sustained protection over time."

Balk and Exley have been studying natural killer T cells since 1996. They were the first investigators to identify the NKT human subset, functionally define these immune cells, and demonstrate that they had defects in cancer patients. The scientists were also the first team to describe the cells' anti-viral roles and to characterize related populations of cells in liver and bone marrow, as well as to demonstrate their roles in various disease states.

"NKT cells are a very potent source for good in some types of immune response, but in other instances can cause problems," adds Exley, who is also a member of BIDMC's Division of Hematology/Oncology. "By selectively activating or depleting NKT function we plan to develop drugs that can target a wide range of diseases, from asthma and autoimmune disorders to cancers and infectious diseases. Asthma is one of the conditions in which NKT cells create an adverse immune response. Therefore, by downregulating NKT activity, we hope to create successful asthma treatments."

"I am very excited to lead the development of this very promising technology whose broad potential for addressing major health care needs is underscored by this successful financing," adds Robert Mashal, MD, President and Chief Executive Officer of NKT Therapeutics.

NKT Therapeutics has licensed an extensive intellectual property portfolio from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Stan Mah of BIDMC's Technology Ventures Office (TVO) had the lead role in organizing licensing on behalf of all parties.