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From Galway to San Diego: ONK Therapeutics’ Aim to Usher in A New Era of Engineered NK Cell Therapies with the Goal to Ultimately Cure Cancer

By JLABS
Q&A

For Rohit Duggal, PhD, a dual role as Head of R&D and US Site Head of ONK Therapeutics Inc. is the perfect metaphor for how the company applies a dual approach in nearly everything they do.

With more than 20 years of experience in the biopharmaceutical industry, Dr. Duggal shares how ONK Therapeutics is advancing a portfolio of dual-targeted natural killer (NK) cancer cell therapies with the aim to help change the course of cancer for patients.

Can you speak to your background and how that led you to ONK Therapeutics?

I jumped right into the biopharmaceutical industry at the beginning of my career, immediately after my postdoc. Over the last 23 years, I have specialized in oncology, more recently researching and advancing cell therapy platforms that are natural killer (NK) cell based for product development to potentially improve care for patients with cancer.

I’m incredibly honored to be the first employee and Site Head of ONK Therapeutics Inc.’s San Diego R&D operations. This is a huge milestone for the company as this site also introduces the US subsidiary of ONK Therapeutics Limited, our parent company based in Galway, Ireland. We have not only established a presence in the US, but this expansion of our operations is a testament to how quickly we have scaled up and continue to build our momentum.

What attracted me to ONK Therapeutics was the innovative outlook, the vibrant company culture, and the opportunity to generate next generation NK cell products with superior properties dialed in through a proprietary approach to genetic engineering, including gene editing to improve the persistence, metabolic profile, and cytotoxic potential of NK cells.

How does ONK Therapeutics aim to progress the science behind natural killer cells?

NK cells are a critical part of our innate immune system and are very relevant to the times we are living in due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They are our bodies’ first responders to viral infection or cancer and work alongside the adaptive immune system. To use an analogy, NK cells call in the cavalry that comes in and blasts the site of infection or clears away tumor cells.

ONK Therapeutics seeks to establish and optimize the next generation of NK cell therapies using a dual-targeted approach to help patients with hematological malignancies and solid tumors.  Furthermore, multiplexed gene-editing is an important part of our strategy to further optimize the NK cell product.

Leveraging our unique proprietary platform, our dual-targeted approach helps ensure efficient tumor targeting and optimization of NK cells’ natural function. We engage both intrinsic and extrinsic cytotoxic pathways, designed to express both a chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) engagement of tumor-specific antigens and a TRAIL variant to efficiently target the death receptor pathway. This helps improve efficacy in killing the tumor cell and reduces the vulnerability to antigen escape and potential resistance to therapy. Through multiplexed gene-editing, we are seeking to further remove deleterious attributes that could result in a superior NK cell product.

Where do you see ONK Therapeutics in the future? Do you have any advice for innovators seeking to enter the oncology space?

Things are certainly moving pretty fast around here. Our immediate goal within the next two years is to complete the initial discovery and development phase of our initial portfolio of product candidates, and move several into the clinic, including our flagship program ONKT102, targeting both CD38 and DR5 in multiple myeloma. We are hopeful that we will be able to file multiple investigational new drug (IND) applications, building our transition from a pre-clinical to a clinical stage company. We will also be in a position where we can advance programs for some of the more challenging indications, including those in solid tumors.

From a business perspective, we are looking to grow our talented team. We currently have one opening to fill and several more lining up in quick succession. We do some serious cutting-edge work at ONK Therapeutics and are looking to hire people who are not only curious about NK cell therapy, but who also get enjoyment translating it into product development. The foundation of our culture is built on our people’s passion for this science. We may be a start-up, but we provide the right structure and environment to help these curious minds flourish by exploring their interests and broadening the company’s outlook based on their ideas.

For any early-stage entrepreneur in this therapeutic space seeking to launch their own company, the key to standing out from your competitors may be looking for ways to differentiate yourself in terms of how you can modify cell therapy to usher in the next generation of therapeutic products.

Having lived in San Diego for the last 20 years and counting, what do you think of the region’s innovation ecosystem and JLABS @ San Diego’s role in it? 

I love being located in San Diego. There are so many converging sectors in this region’s ecosystem that it has never been easier to seek out a different perspective and get help with whatever your business could potentially need. And with San Diego being one of the best hubs for innovation in the country, how could you not love the location?

Since becoming a resident of JLABS @ San Diego in November 2020, I cannot reiterate enough the positive experience we have had with the Johnson & Johnson Innovation – JLABS team. In just seven months, we have become a full-fledged operations unit. We have our own dedicated lab space and access to upwards of $1 million in equipment through our residency, and we have been given the general infrastructure we need to hit the ground running.

The concept behind JLABS makes a lot of sense for companies like ONK Therapeutics, and I don’t think we would be where we are today without the resources they help provide.

To learn more about ONK Therapeutics, please visit https://www.onktherapeutics.com.


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