Bob Langer-founded cell therapy player loads up $65M to fund Roche-partnered cancer work while expanding into vaccines for infectious diseases
SQZ Biotech isn’t planning to test anything against Covid-19 for now. But when the next pandemic strikes, CEO Armon Sharei wants its cell therapy platform — which is essentially also a vaccine platform — to be ready for plug-and-play.
The expansion into infectious diseases is one of many things the Watertown, MA-based company plans to accomplish with its latest $65 million Series D.
Viral and bacterial infections, both the chronic kind and the ones that can pose a sudden, global threat, had been on his radar since his PhD days at Bob Langer’s MIT lab, Sharei told Endpoints News. Now that they have pushed the first implementation of their cell engineering technique into the clinic and figured out the manufacturing setup — in the form of an oncology program partnered with Roche — with another lined up for later this year, the time is ripe for some preparation for an IND filing in 2021.
As with the applications in cancer, two of SQZ’s three tech platforms, namely the antigen presenting cells (APC) and activating antigen carriers (AAC), can come into play here. Under both approaches, cells get squeezed and, as their membranes get temporarily disrupted, have material slipped inside. That cargo of interest can be a viral protein for well-characterized viruses, such as the spike protein in SARS-CoV-2, or even a whole chunk of the virus in situations where scientists have yet to decipher a novel pathogen. The former involves white blood cells while the latter uses red blood cells as a kind of Trojan horse at various lymphoid organs to kick off an immune response.
Either way, it diverges from the traditional goal of inducing an antibody response.
“Ultimately the core problem we address with the APC program and the AAC program relates to generating CD8 T cells responses which all these prior attempts at cancer vaccines had failed,” Sharei said. “A lot of times vaccines can only ever work prophylactically. But this mechanism of vaccination, because it leverages killer T cells, it could be used for both contexts.”
On top of that dual function, this platform promises to soothe the manufacturing headache that’s beset even developers of the most advanced vaccine candidates in the Covid-19 race.
Beginning with the very first patient they dosed this January, SQZ has been able to complete processing the cells within 24 hours and return them to patients for infusion — shipping and release testing included — in a week. The relatively simple procedure and absence of preconditioning requirements have also allowed their trial, involving patients with HPV+ tumors, to continue.
To go even faster, Sharei said his team will be looking to consolidate that whole process — from the actual squeezing to cell washing and others — into a single box that can be deployed at a point-of-care facility, shaving even more time off.
“There’s obviously some engineering work to do, I don’t want to trivialize it, but there is no big leap necessary to integrate it,” Sharei said.
Discussions with regulators will also need to establish the kinds of quality control and testing that would be needed if the material no longer needs to be shipped across the country.
With 100 full timers on staff, SQZ is also continuing to plough on the autoimmune field with its third and earliest-stage platform, the tolerizing antigen carriers (TACs), which also leverages red blood cells.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation is a collaborator here, and their T1D Fund has chipped in on the latest round after backing SQZ’s Series C.
Other existing investors such as GV, Illumina Ventures, Invus, NanoDimension and Polaris Partners also participated in the round, which was led by Temasek.