(Page 2 of 2)
genetically modified T cells? “I don’t know how strong the evidence is for B cells being a particularly strong driver of [T cell] responses…[but] it seems feasible,” Taylor says. “B cells have all the right machinery.”
If this approach were proven to work—and to be clear, SQZ does not yet have any evidence in humans that it will—there could be a few benefits over current cell therapy methods, says SQZ CEO and founder Armon Sharei. If they were directed at B cell malignancies such as a variety of leukemias, for instance, these therapies—unlike CAR-T treatments—should spare the healthy B cells.
Second, modified B cells could target a broader range of cancers—solid tumors such as breast, ovarian, and lung—with targets deep within tumors, not just on the surface. That so far has been a limitation of the T cell therapies.
Third, Sharei says that these treatments could be produced “much, much faster” than CAR-T therapies, which can take a few weeks to turn around. “It could very well be a few hours, or a day,” he says.
Taylor says that B cells haven’t really been investigated in this fashion before. Sharei contends that is because it’s very hard, “if not close to impossible” to alter B cells with the help of a virus, and electroporation—a common biopharma tool that essentially zaps cells open with electricity—tends to kill or damage them.
Taylor agrees: “Historically, modifying B cells has been a bit difficult.”
SQZ’s technology supposedly overcomes these hurdles by giving cells a gentle squeeze, just enough to open their membranes so proteins can get inside without killing the cells. Says SQZ executive chairman Amy Schulman, a partner at SQZ investor Polaris Partners: “What this tackles is a fundamental challenge that cuts across both immuno-oncology and many other diseases, which is essentially, how do you make the material you want to get into the cell have access to the cell?”
Sharei and Schulman won’t say which cancers SQZ and Roche are targeting first, which tumor-associated proteins they’re selecting, or when to expect the first treatment in a clinical trial.
The deal is a stamp of validation for SQZ. It’s only two years old, but it burst onto the scene by winning $400,000, the largest prize in the five-plus year history of the Boston accelerator MassChallenge last year. SQZ followed up with a $5 million Series A round from Polaris Partners, 20/20 Healthcare Partners and others in June.
Sharei discovered the technology at the labs of MIT’s Bob Langer and Klavs Jensen, who are both co-founders.
SQZ initially aimed to license the technology to universities and hospitals for research, but eyeing bigger profits, it changed course earlier this year and decided to focus on developing therapies—either on its own, or via deals with biotech and pharma companies. The Roche deal is the first it has announced.
Separately, SQZ also said today that former Vertex Pharmaceuticals chief technology officer Mark Murcko and XTuit Pharmaceuticals president and CEO Garry Nicholson have joined its board of directors. Arlene Sharpe, the head of immunology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, was named to its scientific advisory board, which already includes MIT professors Darrell Irvine, Tyler Jacks, and Christopher Love, and Harvard University professor Ulrich von Andrian.