Startup attracts $8M to handcuff Natural Killers

Imagine Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis shrunk down to about a thousand times and doing to your lungs what they did to the rednecks in the roadside café in the first scene of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.”

That’s pretty much what happens to some asthmatics when specialized T-Cells go haywire. So called “Natural Killers T-Cells” are cells that destroy disease-causing invaders in your body. Or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. In asthmatics—which afflicts an estimated 20 million Americans—Natural Killers play a very different role, waging war on otherwise normal lung tissue.

Newton, Mass.-based NKT Therapeutics is looking for ways to subdue Natural Killers when they do damage to healthy tissue. “By selectively activating or depleting NKT [Natural Killer T-Cells] function, NKT Therapeutics’ approach has the potential to treat a wide range of important diseases as well as provide new avenues for vaccine creation,” says investor Michael Ross, a managing partner at SV Life Sciences.

NKT raised $8 million in its first round of venture funding last week from SV Life Sciences and MedImmune Ventures to continue its work manipulating dangerous cells to develop treatments for such diseases as asthma.

Learning to handcuff Natural Killer cells could have applications beyond the treatment of asthma. Other targets for NKT’s developing technology are the treatment of cancer, infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and dermatitis. “NKT has already created an early stage pipeline of therapeutic leads against multiple targets,” says Joseph Amprey, a senior managing director of MedImmune Ventures.

The $8 million infusion will allow the company to continue its research and start to develop treatments.

“I am very excited,” says CEO Robert Mashal. He should be. NKT Therapeutics will likely be one of the few biotechnology startups that don’t go out of business this year.

Mashal is lucky in that respect. One in five biotechnology startups is likely to fail this year in Europe, causing 20,000 people to lose their jobs unless the industry gets $2 billion in fresh capital, according to a recently released study by Paris-based Alcimed.

U.S.-based venture capital investors may not have had the benefit of the research report, but they’re certainly on the same page. Early stage investors have invested $271.8 million in 26 companies so far this year, down from the $569.6 million they put into 76 companies during the same period in 2008, according to Thomson Reuters (publisher of PE Week).

Biotech has been a tough business during the past several years, especially for small companies. Biotech companies typically raise a lot of money to get started, requiring laboratory equipment installations and extensive product testing. It’s not unusual for a biotech company to raise more than $50 million from venture capitalists before it turns to the public markets to raise additional funding.

And the public markets haven’t been particularly kind to biotech startups. Just one venture-backed biotech company managed to go public in 2008, according to data from Thomson Reuters. Bioheart Inc., which raised $40 million in venture funding before it launched an $88 million IPO last year, has lost 85% of its offering price since it went public. —Alexander Haislip