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MassChallenge Winner From MIT Aims to Kill Cancer With a “Squeeze”

Xconomy Boston — 

Among the slew of challenges in drug development, there’s this: how can you efficiently get a big molecule, like a protein or nucleic acid, into a cell?

That quandary has bedeviled a number of efforts to make and deliver drugs over the years, but it has also provided room for creative thinkers—including one from MIT who’s trying to prove it only requires giving a cell a gentle squeeze.

That’s the thinking behind SQZ Biotech, a startup coming from discoveries that Armon Sharei, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, made at the labs of MIT’s Bob Langer and Klavs Jenses. The company just received the largest prize in the five-year history of the Boston accelerator, MassChallenge—$400,000 in non-dilutive grant money—and some high praise from Scientific American, which called its technology one of the year’s top breakthroughs. With a CEO and 11 other employees, SQZ will soon find out if it can turn that promise into a profitable business.

SQZ is currently situated in the Boston seaport district offices of MassChallenge, which runs a non-profit accelerator program and competition that doles out $1 million in grants to its top new startups each year.

To go from seedling to startup, says CEO Agustin Lopez Marquez, SQZ is looking to raise $3 million to $5 million for a Series A round. That amount of cash would help develop its technology not only as an academic research tool but potentially as a way to deliver immunotherapies—treatments that train the immune system to fend off cancer and other diseases.

SQZ first needs to conduct animal studies to prove to pharma companies that by getting “stuff” into cells (as the startup describes via a cartoon on its website), it can elicit a powerful immune response that shrinks tumors.

SQZ CEO Agustin Lopez Marquez

SQZ CEO Agustin Lopez Marquez

It’s a tall order, but SQZ has big names backing its quest. MIT’s Langer and Jensen are both co-founders and sit on its board, as do Oxford Bioscience Partners managing partner Jonathan Fleming and Amy Schulman, a Polaris Partners venture partner and former head of Pfizer’s consumer healthcare business.

Schulman’s recent addition suggests that a Series A round might include Polaris—after all, the Boston firm has been a major backer of several Langer co-founded startups, like Bind Therapeutics (NASDAQ: BIND), Momenta Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: MNTA), and Selecta Biosciences, to name a few.

“It would make sense, but there’s nothing concrete yet,” Marquez says.

It turns out the work behind SQZ was an accidental discovery. Sharei was working on a method to make a more efficient and productive version of microinjection—a microscopic way to puncture single cells and inject them with a substance. The idea was to push cells through a tiny channel, and poke them with a needle sitting perpendicular to the channel as the cells were passing through.

What Sharei found, however, was that the cells moved too fast for the needle. So he and his colleagues slowed cells down by making the channels they passed through even smaller—squeezing them—so the needle could poke them. The system started working, but as the scientists fortuitously found out, it was the squeeze itself, not the needle, that was opening the cells.

“In hindsight this was a fantastic accident, because that system was pretty expensive and difficult to assemble, while [our technology] is so simple,” Marquez says.

That led to what SQZ calls “CellSqueeze,” which is essentially a microfluidic chip made of silicon and glass, slightly bigger than a cell-phone chip, that can be used to squeeze cells just enough to open up their membranes so molecules, like proteins, can get inside without killing them.

Here’s how it works. A scientist mixes cells with a molecule of interest—say, a drug prospect they want to test. The mixture is put into a reservoir and pushed, by the pressure of nitrogen gas, through the tiny channels in the chip. The constrictions open up the cell membranes, and they remain open for a few minutes after they exit the channels. The cells are still in the mix, which allows the molecule of interest to sneak inside.

The cells then close up, and the researcher scoops them up to do whichever kind of assay is needed. SQZ has 16 different chip designs for different sizes of cells and constrictions. The chips can squeeze about a million cells per second, and the technique can be applied to a host of different cell types, like stem cells or immune cells.

SQZ has already sold CellSqueeze as a research tool to Harvard University, MIT, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of Pennsylvania. In those deals, SQZ supplies both the chips, which are disposable (and thus a recurrent revenue), and a system that dials up or down the amount of pressure from nitrogen tanks (which most labs have). SQZ also trains people how to use them.

Marquez wouldn’t divulge the pricing details. He does say, however, that the $1 million in angel funding SQZ has raised from MIT Angels, Walnut Angels, and Maine Angels—along with the $400,000 in grant money and $150,000 from the founders themselves—is supposed to get SQZ to profitability based on the research tool sales. Marquez expects to be there by early next year.

So why would academic researchers or pharma companies need a technology like this? Labs already have several methods to open up cells, like electroporation, which electrocutes cells. And biopharma researchers can fill liposomes, little bubbles made out of cell membranes, with drugs to deliver them. Other approaches like gene therapy (where a corrected gene is injected into the body to replace a defective one) or chimeric antigen receptor therapy (CAR-T, where T-cells of the immune system are souped up to identify and attack cancer cells) are delivered with viruses.

But Marquez says SQZ can exploit inefficiencies and niches where current technologies don’t work well. Getting large molecules inside cells is “a very hot and niche market for us because we’re not competing head to head against [other established technologies],” Marquez says. “We’re just bringing something new that couldn’t be done before.”

SQZ co-founder Armon Sharei

SQZ co-founder Armon Sharei

Sharei says that high throughput electroporation techniques, for instance, while effective at delivering some nucleic acids to cells, have difficulty elsewhere. “Cellular toxicity and incompatibility with non-nucleic acids such as proteins” are challenges, he says, whereas SQZ’s technology induces more temporary disruptions to the cell membrane that enable “almost any material of interest to be delivered to virtually any cell type.”

For a pharmaceutical company, this might mean partnering with SQZ to take a molecule of interest and see how a cell reacts to it. Or, for companies trying new therapeutic methods like messenger RNA or CRISPR/Cas9 where efficient drug delivery is a major challenge, SQZ will try to market CellSqueeze as a potential solution. (Marquez says the company has partnerships with “some of” those companies, including an mRNA therapeutics developer, though he wouldn’t name names).

We asked the opinion of several people deeply involved in cutting-edge therapeutics that will require clever ex-vivo delivery solutions. In general, the reaction was both positive—that is, conceptually it could work and be useful for a variety of applications—but still very much wait-and-see, with many technical questions outstanding.

“Finding new methods of doing non-viral delivery into cells ex-vivo is very important,” says Matthew Porteus, a Stanford University professor and clinician who specializes in pediatric blood cancers, and  a scientific founder of London, UK-based Crispr Therapeutics. “So this is very exciting. The caveat is that they have to show that it will work better than electroporation.”

Another scientist immersed in CRISPR/Cas9 work—Andy May, the chief scientific officer of Caribou Biosciences in Berkeley, CA, and a board member of Intellia Therapeutics—agrees with Porteus that the electroporation bar is set high, but May notes “not all proteins work well with electroporation.”

Before Caribou, May was director of R&D at microfluidics company Fluidigm (NASDAQ: FLDM). From his decade of background in that business, he’s eager to see how SQZ builds the architecture of its chips—the size of the channels, for example—to accommodate the mixtures of cell types that come in more challenging clinical settings.

Beyond selling its technology to others, SQZ has a bigger goal in mind: cancer immunotherapy. The company aims to use CellSqueeze as a medium to create a next-generation version of Dendreon’s sipuleucel-T (Provenge). Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN) extracts a patient’s dendritic cells, which “teach” the soldiers of the immune system, the T-cells, what to look for, and incubates them with a genetically engineered protein found on prostate cancer cells called PAP. When those incubated dendritic cells are re-infused back into the patient, they alert T-cells to find and kill cells with PAP.

SQZ envisions CellSqueeze as a more efficient way of delivering antigens (substances like those PAP proteins that spark an immune response) into dendritic cells.

Marquez says CellSqueeze might elicit a greater response from the immune system’s T-cells than Dendreon’s method. In mice, for instance, he says CellSqueeze “basically activated every single T-cell.” Of course, that’s in mice, where cancer has been cured a million times over. SQZ has a lot more to prove.

“When we talk to pharma, they want to see that not only can you activate these T-cells, but that they can have a tumor effect,” Marquez says.

That’s where the animal studies come in. Marquez notes that those experiments will be a critical moment for the company. If the data are impressive, SQZ might contemplate the long, capital-intensive route of making its own therapeutics. Until then, however, it’ll try to amass the credibility to cut more licensing deals and grow itself brick by brick—starting with a Series A round.

“That’s happening as we speak,” Marquez says.

Alex Lash contributed to this report.

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One response to “MassChallenge Winner From MIT Aims to Kill Cancer With a “Squeeze””

  1. MineMan says:

    Why such secrecy about what Bios they are working with?
    They should be bragging about the Biotechs they are working with.
    I did not see a mention of SGMO.