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Could natural killer cells transform Alzheimer’s treatment?

This week on the podcast, we have a conversation with Dr Paul Song, CEO of NKGen Biotech, a company with its sights set on changing the Alzheimer’s disease treatment landscape with natural killer cells.

The company’s natural killer (NK) cell Alzheimer’s treatment uses a patient’s cells, collected by a simple blood draw. The cells are then enhanced in a lab and then infused back into the patient’s body (with little to no side effects).

NKGen is also tackling cancer, and the company’s platform has the capacity to take on other diseases.

The company’s autologous clinical program product candidate, SNK01, demonstrated improvement in neuroinflammation and cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s in its phase 1 dose-escalation safety trial. SNK01 consists of a non-genetically modified NK cell product with enhanced cytotoxicity and activating receptor expression for the treatment of moderate AD.

NKGen recently announced the first patient in its phase 1/2a trial has been dosed, with 6 billion cells. This is 50% more than the maximum dosing from the phase 1 trial.

About NKGen Biotech

NKGen initially was launched as a company that had developed an in vitro diagnostic to measure patients’ immune competency, specifically how well their natural killer cells were working. 

Song said the company started to make a connection between weak or deficient natural killer cells with various human diseases. 

“The next question was, now that you’ve been able to diagnose or at least correlate weak immune systems with various diseases, whether it be autoimmune diseases or cancer susceptibility, is there a therapy for that?” Song said.

So, the company set about developing a natural killer cell therapy to be the counterpoint to when a condition is diagnosed. 

“Unlike a lot of the cell therapy companies that initially just were launched to develop a treatment for cancer, whether it be CAR-T or even CAR-NK companies, we really set out to develop a platform that could take anyone’s weak or deficient natural killer cells, grow them into massive amounts, but make them inherently more powerful so that when we gave them back to patients, they could help to restore the immune integrity of one’s body and also really be used across numerous disease, not just oncology,” Song explained. 

“If we can get [Alzheimer’s patients] to the point where they’re now able to speak, where they were not able to speak a few months ago, I think that will be pretty dramatic.”

Paul Song, CEO, NKGen Biotech

Current challenges in Alzheimer’s treatment strategies

NKGen took a different approach to tackling Alzheimer’s. Song pointed out that while there have been improvements in treatment, no one showed any cognitive improvement.

“What they did was they looked at the earliest stage, what we call mild cognitive impairment, and were only able to slow the progression of the decline rather than actually have anyone stop getting worse or actually get better,” he explained.

“What we have found is that it’s a much more complicated process than just protein accumulation. In fact, as these proteins accumulate in the brain, they elicit a robust downstream effect of inflammation and damage. 

“What happens is the proteins as they get into the brain, you have other immune cells in your body, T-cells, that try to remove the proteins. But because they don’t have the ability to really distinguish normal, healthy brain or nerves from actual proteins, what they end up doing is causing a lot of collateral damage. So, if you just remove the protein, but leave the inflammation and damage behind, that’s one of the reasons we believe that patients are not getting any better.”

Revolutionizing Alzheimer’s treatment: NKGen’s breakthrough with enhanced natural killer cells

Song said NKGen has found that NK cells can, when boosted, not only reduce amyloid proteins, but also reduce tau proteins and inflammation.

“We have a process where we can take anyone’s natural killer cells, whether or not we take them from somebody who’s young and healthy or somebody who’s had multiple courses of chemotherapy and whose immune system has been beaten up, we can take the natural killer cells and grow them in a way that’s non-genetically modified, but we can turn them into billions of highly enhanced, highly aggressive cells where we dramatically increase the strength of the natural killer cell, the killing potential. 

“And we also draw out a very important optimization of natural killer cells. So, natural killer cells can police your body and through a slew of receptors, they can determine what’s normal and should be left alone or what is diseased, whether it be a cancer cell, a virally-infected cell, or even a protein. A natural killer cell uses these receptors to determine whether or not this is normal or whether or not it’s diseased.

“And once it’s diseased, it can eliminate the cell, the cancer cell, the protein, or the renegade immune cell. And what we found is that our natural killer cells, the way they’re enhanced and grown, can help to digest the proteins that accumulate in the body, in the brain, in the case of Alzheimer’s, but they can also identify those immune cells that are attacking your own body and start to eliminate them as well.”

No side effects

He added that giving patients large quantities of their own highly enhanced natural killer cells will help address underlying health problems. However, in the case of Alzheimer’s, Song is keen to manage expectations.

“I don’t think we are going to get patients back to their pre-disease. A lot of these patients can no longer speak. But if they can at least speak to the point where they can readily communicate and articulate what they’re feeling or what their needs are and be engaged, I think that will be a huge, huge boost. 

“For the earlier stage populations, I do think it’s possible that we can prevent them from ever getting worse and actually get them back to their baseline. The advanced patients, we have to set expectations, but if we can get them to the point where they’re now able to speak, where they were not able to speak a few months ago or a few years ago, I think that will still be pretty dramatic.”

Song said there are no side effects with the process.

Future plans: NK cells for Parkinson’s disease and autism

In the future, NKGen plans to take on Parkinson’s disease, the neuroinflammation associated with patients who’ve had strokes or brain injuries, and autism.

The company hopes to have some data to share in 2024.

“If we continue to see the results we’re seeing right now, we’re hoping to present that data to the US FDA and apply for accelerated approval in 2025 and hopefully get this into more and more people sometime before the end of 2025,” Song concluded.

To learn more about this topic:

Here are some links to more articles on the subject of natural killer cells and the treatment of Alzheimer’s.