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Business Interview: At the forefront of clinical cell therapy

Johan Liwing

XNK Therapeutics recently secured a private placement of 132 million SEK, enabling progress of the company’s development of new NK cell-based therapies.

Since its foundation ten years ago, Swedish XNK Therapeutics has been developing novel autologous natural killer (NK) cell-based therapies targeting cancer. The company’s technology platform includes assets related to the investigational drug product and manufacturing technology. The goal is to develop a broad technology platform for NK cell-based therapies based on a method for expanding and activating the patient’s own NK cells. CellProtect, autologous ex vivo expanded and activated NK cells with increased tumor killing capacity, is the lead investigational drug candidate of XNK. The product has been granted Orphan Drug Designation for the treatment of multiple myeloma in the US and the European Union. The product is planned to reach the market via accelerated/conditional approval both in the US and Europe.

Over the past two years, the company has grown significantly.

“The company has developed very fast,” says Johan Liwing, CEO of XNK Therapeutics since April 2020. “When I began as CEO the company consisted of two employees and a group of very competent shareholders working for free. Today, we have published results from a completed Phase I study and we have an ongoing Phase II study within multiple myeloma. We are also in the process of completing our GMP facility in order to be able to produce for larger clinical studies, and we are also starting to work within new cancer indications together with partners. As a consequence of this acceleration, the company has also grown to 25 co-workers.”

Moving forward

A recent private placement of 132 million SEK has also allowed the company to continue and further accelerate its growth and was an important milestone. Flerie Invest led the financing by placing 100 million SEK and thus gained approximately 22 percent of the total number of shares and votes in the company, becoming XNK’s largest owner.

“XNK Therapeutics and the innovation ecosystem around Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm have long been at the forefront of clinical cell therapy development,” says Ted Fjällman. “We’re excited to lead this round and use our network to further commercialize the company, and in so doing bring cell therapies to more patients.”

The company is now aiming to move forward the clinical development within multiple myeloma as quickly as possible, according to Johan Liwing. “We also aim to generate preclinical data for several new indications in order to bring one of them to the clinic, as well as continuing developing our platform.”

“If the efficacy data turns out to be as good as we expect, there is a great number of cancer indications which we could be successful within.”

The data generated from the clinical studies will determine what opportunities XNK has on the market for cell therapies and cancer treatments, believes Johan. “Based on our first-in-human data and published literature we believe to have a safe product, and if the efficacy data turns out to be as good as we expect, there is a great number of cancer indications which we could be successful within.”

Local advantages and global thinking

Being a Swedish life science company has many advantages according to Johan.

“We have close proximity to the competence within academia, and to the infrastructure in Huddinge, where we are located, including the production unit Vecura [an integrated part of the Karolinska Cell Therapy Center]. We would not have been able to come as far as we have if we hadn’t had this. Working with NK cells, which were first discovered at Karolinska Institutet, is of course a very big deal. Huddinge is just the right place for us to be located.”

“It is therefore important for a company like XNK to think global from the start.”

Disadvantages of being located in Sweden are that the access to capital is smaller and company valuations are much lower. “It is therefore important for a company like XNK to think global from the start,” says Johan.

The company has actively been participating in public-private partnerships to develop its technology platform.

“We see great advantages in collaborating with others. We believe that autologous NK cells will be a part of a combination treatment in the future and we like to work with potential partners early on. Today we have two ongoing projects of this kind.”

The company has not yet had the bandwidth to focus on acquisitions yet but if they come across the right technology, this could be a natural next step, says Johan.

Photo of Johan Liwing