Imperial start-up raises additional investment for cell therapy targeting ovarian cancer

Lymphocytes attacking a cancer cell
Illustration of lymphocytes attacking a cancer cell. Natural killer cells are a type of lymphocyte that destroys cancer cells and other altered cells by releasing cytotoxic granules.


NK:IO, a new Imperial startup developing a cell therapy for treating solid tumour cancers, has raised an additional £1.2 million in investment, bringing its total seed funding to £5.1 million. The investment will be used to drive NK:IO’s cell therapy candidates through full pre-clinical testing, with ovarian cancer as the first target.

This work will be carried out in collaboration with Professor Iain McNeish, Director of the Ovarian Cancer Action Research Centre at Imperial and Head of the Cancer Division within the Department of Surgery and Cancer, who is also a co-lead for the NIHR Imperial BRC Surgery and Cancer Theme.

Cancer Research Horizons, the innovation arm of the charity Cancer Research UK, led the investment round. It also included contributions from the Imperial College Enterprise Fund, Start Codon, UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund and Meltwind.

“Cancer Research Horizons believes that NK:IO’s technology, based on pioneering research from Imperial College, has transformational potential for cancer patients,” said Tony Hickson, Chief Business Officer at Cancer Research UK and Cancer Research Horizons. “We are delighted to support the company’s progression and excited to work with the team as they progress to the clinic.”

“NK:IO is developing a groundbreaking platform with the potential to bring a new modality of cell therapy to patients,” said Dr Brijesh Roy, Investment Manager at Imperial. He oversees the Imperial College Enterprise Funds, which provide the early-stage investment critical to transform Imperial discoveries into tomorrow’s solutions. “It is precisely this type of innovative startup company that these funds were created to support.”

Natural born killers

NK:IO was founded in 2020, building on decades of research into immune cells known as natural killer (NK) cells carried out by Professor Hugh JM Brady from the Department of Life Sciences and Professor Matthew Fuchter from the Department of Chemistry. The aim was to apply this knowledge and build a novel cellular immunotherapy platform for the treatment of solid tumour cancers.

Cellular immunotherapy is a new form of medicine that involves taking immune cells from the body, cultivating them, and using them to treat conditions such as cancers. This is sometimes assisted by genetic modifications that help the cultivated immune cells recognise the cancer cells.

However, NK cells are part of the innate immune system, meaning they can identify foreign invaders such as cancer cells without needing extra help such as genetic modification. This means a cell therapy based on NK cells could in principle be produced as an off-the-shelf treatment at a lower cost.

NK:IO went public this month with the announcement of a £1.6 million Innovate UK grant that will help it to progress its cellular immunotherapy platform toward clinical adoption. This includes the development of a manufacturing process, in collaboration with the Cell and Gene Therapy Catapult, whose mission is to support the UK’s cell and gene therapy industry.

“We are very excited by the potential of NK:IO’s platform to address unmet needs in cancer cell therapy, including solid tumours, and to revolutionise the field. We are delighted by the support of our investors, including Cancer Research Horizons, who have joined to lead the round. Our recent success in securing non-dilutive funding under Innovate UK’s New Cancer Therapeutics programme further endorses this vision” said Mike Romanos, co-founder and interim Chief Executive of the company.

  • Professor Iain McNeish
    Professor Iain McNeish
    Professor of Oncology and Head of Division of Cancer - Co-Theme Lead