First-in-hu­man stud­ies in sight, SQZ's cell ther­a­py tech wins over a di­verse group of in­vestors in $72M round

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.”

Zafi Avnur

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

Biotech Half­time Re­port: Af­ter a bumpy year, is biotech ready to re­bound?

The biotech sector has come down firmly from the highs of February as negative sentiment takes hold. The sector had a major boost of optimism from the success of the COVID-19 vaccines, making investors keenly aware of the potential of biopharma R&D engines. But from early this year, clinical trial, regulatory and access setbacks have reminded investors of the sector’s inherent risks.

RBC Capital Markets recently surveyed investors to take the temperature of the market, a mix of specialists/generalists and long-only/ long-short investment strategies. Heading into the second half of the year, investors mostly see the sector as undervalued (49%), a large change from the first half of the year when only 20% rated it as undervalued. Around 41% of investors now believe that biotech will underperform the S&P500 in the second half of 2021. Despite that view, 54% plan to maintain their position in the market and 41% still plan to increase their holdings.

How to col­lect and sub­mit RWD to win ap­proval for a new drug in­di­ca­tion: FDA spells it out in a long-await­ed guid­ance

Real-world data is messy. There can be differences in the standards used to collect different types of data, differences in terminologies and curation strategies, and even in the way data is exchanged.

While acknowledging this somewhat controlled chaos, the FDA is now explaining how biopharma companies can submit study data derived from real-world data (RWD) sources in applicable regulatory submissions, including new drug indications.

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David Livingston (Credit: Michael Sazel for CeMM)

Renowned Dana-Far­ber sci­en­tist, men­tor and bio­phar­ma ad­vi­sor David Liv­ingston has died

David Livingston, the Dana-Farber/Harvard Med scientist who helped shine a light on some of the key molecular drivers of breast and ovarian cancer, died unexpectedly last Sunday.

One of the senior leaders at Dana-Farber during his nearly half century of work there, Livingston was credited with shedding light on the genes that regulate cell growth, with insights into inherited BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations that helped lay the scientific foundation for targeted therapies and earlier detection that have transformed the field.

David Lockhart, ReCode Therapeutics CEO

Pfiz­er throws its weight be­hind LNP play­er eye­ing mR­NA treat­ments for CF, PCD

David Lockhart did not see the meteoric rise of messenger RNA and lipid nanoparticles coming.

Thanks to the worldwide fight against Covid-19, mRNA — the genetic code that can be engineered to turn the body into a mini protein factory — and LNPs, those tiny bubbles of fat carrying those instructions, have found their way into hundreds of millions of people. Within the biotech world, pioneers like Alnylam and Intellia have demonstrated just how versatile LNPs can be as a delivery vehicle for anything from siRNA to CRISPR/Cas9.

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No­vo CEO Lars Fruer­gaard Jør­gensen on R&D risk, the deal strat­e­gy and tar­gets for gen­der di­ver­si­ty


I kicked off our European R&D summit last week with a conversation involving Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen. Novo is aiming to launch a new era of obesity management with a new approval for semaglutide. And Jørgensen had a lot to say about what comes next in R&D, how they manage risk and gender diversity targets at the trendsetting European pharma giant.

John Carroll: I’m here with Lars Jørgensen, the CEO of Novo Nordisk. Lars, it’s been a really interesting year so far with Novo Nordisk, right? You’ve projected a new era of growing sales. You’ve been able to expand on the GLP-1 franchise that was already well established in diabetes now going into obesity. And I think a tremendous number of people are really interested in how that’s working out. You have forecast a growing amount of sales. We don’t know specifically how that might play out. I know a lot of the analysts have different ideas, how those numbers might play out, but that we are in fact embarking on a new era for Novo Nordisk in terms of what the company’s capable of doing and what it’s able to do and what it wants to do. And I wanted to start off by asking you about obesity in particular. Semaglutide has been approved in the United States for obesity. It’s an area of R&D that’s been very troubled for decades. There have been weight loss drugs that have come along. They’ve attracted a lot of attention, but they haven’t actually ever gained traction in the market. My first question is what’s different this time about obesity? What is different about this drug and why do you expect it to work now whereas previous drugs haven’t?

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Sur­geons suc­cess­ful­ly at­tach pig kid­ney to a hu­man for the first time, us­ing tech from Unit­ed's Re­vivi­cor

In a first, researchers reportedly successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human without triggering an immediate immune response this week. And the technology came from the biotech United Therapeutics.

Surgeons spent three days attaching the kidney to the patient’s blood vessels, but when all was said and done, the kidney appeared to be functioning normally in early testing, Reuters and the New York Times were among those to report. The kidney came from a genetically altered pig developed through United’s Revivicor unit.

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Leen Kawas (L) has resigned as CEO of Athira and will be replaced by COO Mark Litton

Ex­clu­sive: Athi­ra CEO Leen Kawas re­signs af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion finds she ma­nip­u­lat­ed da­ta

Leen Kawas, CEO and founder of the Alzheimer’s upstart Athira Pharma, has resigned after an internal investigation found she altered images in her doctoral thesis and four other papers that were foundational to establishing the company.

Mark Litton, the company’s COO since June 2019 and a longtime biotech executive, has been named full-time CEO. Kawas, meanwhile, will no longer have ties to the company except for owning a few hundred thousand shares.

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Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca CEO (via Getty images)

UP­DAT­ED: FDA slaps As­traZeneca's MCL-1 can­cer drug with a hold af­ter safe­ty is­sue — 2 years af­ter Am­gen axed a trou­bled ri­val

There are new questions being posed about a class of cancer drugs in the wake of the second FDA-enforced clinical hold in the field.

Two years after the FDA hit Amgen with a clinical hold on its MCL-1 inhibitor AMG 397 following signs of cardiac toxicity, AstraZeneca says that regulators hit them with a hold on their rival therapy of the same class.

The pharma giant noted on that its Phase I/II study for the MCL-1 drug AZD5991 “has been put on hold to allow further evaluation of safety related information.”

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Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL, foreground) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) (Patrick Semansky/AP Images)

Sen­a­tors back FDA's plan to re­quire manda­to­ry pre­scriber ed­u­ca­tion for opi­oids

Three Senate Democrats are backing an FDA plan to require mandatory prescriber education for opioids as overdose deaths have risen sharply over the past decade, with almost 97,000 American opioid-related overdose deaths in the past year alone.

While acknowledging a decline in overall opioid analgesic dispensing in recent years, the FDA said it’s reconsidering the need for mandatory prescriber training through a REMS given the current situation with overdoses, and is seeking input on the aspects of the opioid crisis that mandatory training could potentially mitigate.