‘Natural Killer Cells’ and Other Promising Cancer Treatments – Barron’s

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Last weekends online meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research gave a glimpse at the newest ideas for fighting cancer. Among the most exciting were treatments that engineer natural cells into cancer-targeting torpedoes.

Engineered-cell treatments from Affimed (ticker: AFMD), Fate Therapeutics (FATE), and Rubius Therapeutics (RUBY) drew attention from Wall Street analysts.

The German company Affimed reported exciting results in a four-patient test of its AFM13 antibodies in patients with the blood cancer lymphoma. When administered with a kind of immune cell known as a natural killer cell, Affimeds antibody binds the NK cells to a target found on many cancer cells.

Before treatment started at the end of last year, all four lymphoma patients had been very sick. One had even been consigned to hospice.

The cancer receded in all four patients after treatment, with complete responses in two of them. The patient who had been sent to hospice is now eligible for a bone-marrow transplant. Side effects werent a problem.

They had all failed multiple lines of treatmentup to 14 lines of therapy, said Katy Rezvani, a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center who is leading the study, on a Thursday morning conference call. The fact that we are seeing responses as it is, I think, is just incredible.

Dose levels of the Affimed-primed killer cells were kept deliberately low in the first administrations of the treatment. Higher doses may show deeper response and greater persistence of the natural killer cells, notes BMO Capital Markets analyst Do Kim in a Thursday note. Affimed is testing other antibodies in Phase 1 studies that target solid tumors.

Excitement over the lymphoma study results lifted Affimed stock from about $7.70 to $10.70 since last week. In recent trading, the shares were down 9.3%, at $9.38, after the development-stage company reported a slightly higher-than-expected loss of 0.50 euros a share (about 60 cents) for the 2020 year. BMOs Kim rates Affimed at Outperform, with a $15 price target.

One promising feature of natural-killer-cell treatments is that the cells can be obtained from donors and stored on the shelf. Current treatments with other engineered immune cells must harvest a patients own cells, then modify and grow them for re-administration. Another pioneer in developing NK cell therapies is Fate Therapeutics, and the company provided several updates at the AACR meeting on its treatments.

Fates stock enjoyed a remarkable run in the past year, soaring from $19 to a January 2021 peak of $119, before settling back to a recent $84.87. That puts an $8 billion market cap on a company thats yet to report revenue. But Fate has 10 clinical trials in Phase 1 for its NK cell technology, which takes undifferentiated stem cells (stored on the shelf) and transforms them into NK cells targeting a variety of solid and blood tumors.

At AACR, Fate focused on its laboratory studies that show the flexibility of its NK cell technology. In planned meetings later this year, it will review its human trials against various cancers. The stocks gain has some analysts rating it Neutral. Among them is H.C. Wainwrights Robert Burns, who wrote in January about the excitement that followed Fates report that its treatment had reversed the cancer in a patient whose lymphoma had resisted seven other kinds of therapy.

Burns may have a Neutral rating on Fates stock, but he thinks it could rise to $108 as the company reports more clinical trial results this year. Thats a better than 25% upside.

One more engineered cell therapy discussed at AACR was the unusual approach of Rubius Therapeutics, which turns off-the-shelf red blood cells into therapies that stimulate an immune system attack on cancer. Researchers detailed results first reported in March, from a Phase 1 trial against several different cancers. The treatment reversed cancers in one patient with metastatic melanoma and another with metastatic anal cancer, while stabilizing the disease in six other patients.

Rubius will escalate doses in the Phase 1 study, while proceeding with other trials that target different kinds of cancer or combine its treatment with other cancer therapies. Guggenheims Michael Schmidt projects that Rubius could start to see revenue from its unique approach in 2024, and rates the stock a Buy. He argues that its stock, now trading at $23.86, is worth at least $30.

Write to Bill Alpert at william.alpert@barrons.com

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'Natural Killer Cells' and Other Promising Cancer Treatments - Barron's

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