Roche is the world’s biggest maker of cancer drugs, but it hasn’t moved into cellular immunotherapy, one of oncology’s most promising new treatments that turns our own immune cells into cancer killers. Today the Swiss company is taking the plunge by turning to tiny Boston startup SQZ Biotech and working on a form of immunotherapy they say may overcome some of the field’s most significant limitations.
The companies aren’t saying how much Roche is paying SQZ (pronounced “squeeze”) at first, but the biotech could ultimately earn more than $500 million as they develop cell therapies together for a broad range of cancers.
Cell-based immunotherapy has been moving fast. By modifying T cells, the immune system’s attack dogs, to seek and destroy tumors, companies like Juno Therapeutics (NASDAQ: JUNO), Kite Pharma (NASDAQ: KITE), Novartis (NYSE: NVS), Cellectis (NASDAQ: CLLS) and others have entered clinical trials and produced promising results for patients with certain blood cancers. These treatments are known as chimeric antigen receptor T cell, or CAR-T, therapies.
A number of questions remain about cellular immunotherapy, however: how many cancers it can impact, how scalable the technology is, whether these treatments can be manufactured in a cost effective way. All need to be answered in the next few years as therapies advance towards potential FDA approval.
The allure of the field has attracted a number of larger players: Pfizer has partnered with Cellectis, Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) has teamed with Bluebird Bio (NASDAQ: BLUE) and Johnson & Johnson has inked a deal with Transposagen Biopharmaceuticals.
Now, finally, comes Roche. It generated about $25 billion in sales from its cancer drugs alone in 2014, and has the wherewithal to gobble up any of the major cell therapy makers. So why is its first foray into the field a smaller bet on a startup company with an unproven technology?
A Roche spokesperson says that the company has been monitoring the cell therapy space for awhile looking for methods that can expand the use of these treatments into an “array of tumor types and indications,” and that SQZ’s technology, while early, “is a step in this direction.”
“It’s demonstrated the ability to overcome many of the long standing challenges in the field of intracellular delivery,” the spokesperson says.
Instead of genetically engineering changes into T cells and unleashing them in the body, as the high-profile CAR-T methods do, Roche and SQZ are looking to modify B cells as a way of super-charging a patient’s T cells.
Here’s how: Also part of the immune system, B cells are adept at taking bits of invasive or pathogenic material called antigens—such as fragments of proteins from tumors—and “presenting” them in just the right way to T cells, akin to the way a police dog will be presented a fragment of clothing to sniff as a way to identify a suspect or missing person.
SQZ has made a chip that can be used to sort cells, one by one, and insert material into cells without killing them. Roche and SQZ want to take antigens from a patient’s tumor, insert them into the patient’s B cells—all done outside the body—then give the “stuffed” B cells back to the patient. The theory is that the modified B cells would train the body’s T cells to hunt down the cancer.
“I think [the approach] is really interesting, it’s something that should be investigated,” says Justin Taylor, an assistant member at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and an expert on B cells, who isn’t involved with SQZ.
Taylor says the big question is how effectively the modified B cells would train T cells. Would those “trained” T cells be as effective as … Next Page »