Roche and SQZ Biotech Expand R&D Pact in Pursuit of New Cancer Drugs

Xconomy Boston — 

Roche, the world’s biggest cancer drug company, selected the technology of startup SQZ Biotechnologies to help it develop new cellular therapies for cancer. Three years after that drug alliance started, the partners are now broadening the immune cells covered by the collaboration.

The companies are expanding their drug development pact to encompass drugs based on immune cells called antigen-presenting cells (APCs). Those cells will be produced using SQZ’s technology. Under the terms of the expanded partnership, Watertown, MA-based SQZ stands to receive up to $125 million in “upfront and near-term” milestone payments, though the companies declined to specify how much of that SQZ is receiving at the start.

APCs function by processing pieces of a diseased cell and then presenting antigens so that the immune system’s T cells recognize them. The T cells, the front-line defenders of the immune system, will then target the harmful cells. When Roche and SQZ announced their partnership in 2015, the companies said that they would focus on B cells, a type of APC. The expanded collaboration covers APCs broadly.

Cell therapy involves removing immune cells from a patient, engineering them so that they can better recognize and destroy tumors, multiplying those cells in a lab, and then infusing the cells into a patient. Roche and SQZ say their expanded partnership could lead to cell therapies spark anti-cancer activity that can’t be achieved by currently available cellular treatments.

SQZ does not use viruses or gene-editing techniques to produce its therapeutic cells, nor do its cells require expansion in a lab. SQZ has developed a way to use microchips to endow cells with therapeutic properties. These chips squeeze cells just enough to open up membranes without destroying the cell (see above graphic). Therapeutic proteins can then enter through the membranes.

By focusing on the interaction of APCs and T cells, Roche and SQZ say they can target a key process that regulates immune responses, which in turn could potentially treat more types of cancer. Roche and SQZ also say their approach could have safety and production advantages compared to other cancer cell therapies. In a prepared statement, Howard Bernstein, SQZ’s chief scientific officer, said the collaboration “could potentially generate products with more potent immunologic responses through a simplified, more efficient manufacturing process.” But the companies have yet to release data showing the progress of the work so far. The expanded partnership comes two months after SQZ raised $72 million in a Series C round of financing to support its preclinical work.

If the SQZ and Roche partnership yields new cell therapies, SQZ could earn up to $250 million in milestone payments, per product. The companies say the additional milestone payments to SQZ could top $1 billion. If any drugs from the partnership reach the market, SQZ and Roche would share the rights for “certain approved products.”

Graphic by SQZ Biotechnologies