Having steadily built out the preclinical data to cement its cell therapy platform and sorted out the technicalities, SQZ Biotech has raised $72 million to make its first drive to the clinic.
The Series C marks the biggest round by far for Boston-based SQZ, which launched out of the labs of MIT’s Robert Langer and Klavs Jensen in 2014 with $1 million in seed funding.
CEO Armon Sharei tells me the oversubscribed round — bringing in new investors including Illumina Ventures, Invus, Viva Ventures Biotech Group, Everblue and Orient Life — is a reflection of the company’s progress in validating its approach to engineering cells for therapeutic purposes. The team is now lining up an IND in HPV+ tumor indications for the end of the year, with the first clinical results expected by next year. Trials in autoimmune diseases will follow.
“We feel like the platform can do so many things that other cell therapies can’t,” he says. “And so by putting our APC (antigen presenting cell) system into play in patients, hopefully we can see some pretty dramatic results and ultimately go after a much broader set of cancer targets beyond the HPV indications that we’re going after first.”
Following a method that Sharei discovered when he was a PhD student working under Langer and Jensen, SQZ’s tech temporary disrupts the cell membrane by squeezing the cell, thus creating a brief window when target materials such as antigens can enter the cell.
Not only does it have the potential to go after targets that current CAR-T therapies can’t reach; it’s also simpler and cheaper to manufacture, according to the young founder — a process that his staffers have honed and scaled up in preparation for the upcoming Phase I trial.
Two new board directors will advise Sharei in executing that trial. They are Marc Elia, partner at Bridger Healthcare, and Zafi Avnur, CSO of Quark Ventures. Both of their firms participated in previous rounds alongside GV, The JDRF T1D Fund, NanoDimension, and Polaris; Avnur’s involvement dates back to her time at Roche, where she helped the pharma giant ink a $500 million deal with SQZ.
SQZ is talking with other potential partners, Sharei says. But for now, the team — 75 and counting — will have their eyes fixed on getting their internal programs to the first patients.
Image: Armon Sharei. SQZ
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