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

BY­OD Best Prac­tices: How Mo­bile De­vice Strat­e­gy Leads to More Pa­tient-Cen­tric Clin­i­cal Tri­als

Some of the most time- and cost-consuming components of clinical research center on gathering, analyzing, and reporting data. To improve efficiency, many clinical trial sponsors have shifted to electronic clinical outcome assessments (eCOA), including electronic patient-reported outcome (ePRO) tools.

In most cases, patients enter data using apps installed on provisioned devices. At a time when 81% of Americans own a smartphone, why not use the device they rely on every day?

Image: Shutterstock

Eli Lil­ly asks FDA to re­voke EUA for Covid-19 treat­ment

Eli Lilly on Friday requested that the FDA revoke the emergency authorization for its Covid-19 drug bamlanivimab, which is no longer as effective as a combo therapy because of a rise in coronavirus variants across the US.

“With the growing prevalence of variants in the U.S. that bamlanivimab alone may not fully neutralize, and with sufficient supply of etesevimab, we believe now is the right time to complete our planned transition and focus on the administration of these two neutralizing antibodies together,” Daniel Skovronsky, Lilly’s CSO, said in a statement.

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Mer­ck scraps their $425M Covid-19 drug in lat­est pan­dem­ic set­back

Seven months after paying $425 million cash to acquire it, Merck is scrapping a Covid-19 drug they hoped could provide one of the only treatments for severe hospitalized patients.

Merck’s decision comes after they faced significant and unexpected regulatory delays in getting the drug, known as MK-7110 or CD24Fc, across the finish line. The Big Pharma licensed the drug under the belief that it had already shown sufficient benefit in severe patients and they could help scale it up far faster than OncoImmune, its former owner, could. But in February, the company reported that the FDA insisted Merck run a new trial before seeking authorization.

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Severin Schwan, Roche CEO (Georgios Kefalas/Keystone via AP Images)

Look­ing to ce­ment its lead in packed MS mar­ket, Roche's Ocre­vus un­corks new da­ta in ear­ly-stage pa­tients

Among a positively jam-packed multiple sclerosis market, Roche’s Ocrevus has managed to stand out for what the Swiss drugmaker is calling the most successful launch in its long history. But in order to press its advantage, Ocrevus is looking to earlier-stage patients, and new interim data should help build its case there.

After 48 weeks on Roche’s Ocrevus, 85% of newly diagnosed primary progressing or relapsing MS patients without a history of disease modifying therapy posted no disease activity, including disease progression or relapse, according to interim data set to be presented this weekend at the virtual American Academy of Neurology meeting.

J&J faces CDC ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee again next week to weigh Covid-19 vac­cine risks

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices punted earlier this week on deciding whether or not to recommend lifting a pause on the administration of J&J’s Covid-19 vaccine, but the committee will meet again in an emergency session next Friday to discuss the safety issues further.

The timing of the meeting likely means that the J&J vaccine will not return to the US market before the end of next week as the FDA looks to work hand-in-hand with the CDC to ensure the benefits of the vaccine still outweigh the risks for all age groups.

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Osman Kibar (Samumed, now Biosplice)

Os­man Kibar lays down his hand at Sa­mumed, step­ping away from CEO role as his once-her­ald­ed an­ti-ag­ing biotech re­brands

Samumed made quite the entrance back in 2016, when it launched with some anti-aging programs and a whopping $12 billion valuation. That level of fanfare was nowhere to be found on Thursday, when the company added another $120 million to its coffers and quietly changed its name to Biosplice Therapeutics.

Why the sudden rebrand?

“We did that for obvious reasons,” CFO and CBO Erich Horsley told Endpoints News. “The name Biosplice echoes our science much more than Samumed does.”

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Ex­clu­sive in­ter­view: Pe­ter Marks on why full Covid-19 vac­cine ap­provals could be just months away

Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, took time out of his busy schedule last Friday to discuss with Endpoints News all things related to his work regulating vaccines and the pandemic.

Marks, who quietly coined the name “Operation Warp Speed” before deciding to stick with his work regulating vaccines at the FDA rather than join the Trump-era program, has been the face of vaccine regulation for the FDA throughout the pandemic, and is usually spotted in Zoom meetings seated in front of his wife’s paintings.

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Near­ly a year af­ter Au­den­tes' gene ther­a­py deaths, the tri­al con­tin­ues. What hap­pened re­mains a mys­tery

Natalie Holles was five months into her tenure as Audentes CEO and working to smooth out a $3 billion merger when the world crashed in.

Holles and her team received word on the morning of May 5 that, hours before, a patient died in a trial for their lead gene therapy. They went into triage mode, alerting the FDA, calling trial investigators to begin to understand what happened, and, the next day, writing a letter to alert the patient community so they would be the first to know. “We wanted to be as forthright and transparent as possible,” Holles told me late last month.

The brief letter noted two other patients also suffered severe reactions after receiving a high dose of the therapy and were undergoing treatment. One died a month and a half later, at which point news of the deaths became public, jolting an emergent gene therapy field and raising questions about the safety of the high doses Audentes and others were now using. The third patient died in August.

“It was deeply saddening,” Holles said. “But I was — we were — resolute and determined to understand what happened and learn from it and get back on track.”

Eleven months have now passed since the first death and the therapy, a potential cure for a rare and fatal muscle-wasting disease called X-linked myotubular myopathy, is back on track, the FDA having cleared the company to resume dosing at a lower level. Audentes itself is no more; last month, Japanese pharma giant Astellas announced it had completed working out the kinks of the $3 billion merger and had restructured and rebranded the subsidiary as Astellas Gene Therapies. Holles, having successfully steered both efforts, departed.

Still, questions about precisely what led to the deaths of the 3 boys still linger. Trial investigators released key details about the case last August and December, pointing to a biological landmine that Audentes could not have seen coming — a moment of profound medical misfortune. In an emerging field that’s promised cures for devastating diseases but also seen its share of safety setbacks, the cases provided a cautionary tale.

Audentes “contributed in a positive way by giving a painful but important example for others to look at and learn from,” Terry Flotte, dean of the UMass School of Medicine and editor of the journal Human Gene Therapy, told me. “I can’t see anything they did wrong.”

Yet some researchers say they’re still waiting on Astellas to release more data. The company has yet to publish a full paper detailing what happened, nor have they indicated that they will. In the meantime, it remains unclear what triggered the events and how to prevent them in the future.

“Since Audentes was the first one and we don’t have additional information, we’re kind of in a holding pattern, flying around, waiting to figure out how to land our vehicles,” said Jude Samulski, professor of pharmacology at UNC’s Gene Therapy Center and CSO of the gene therapy biotech AskBio, now a subsidiary of Bayer.

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Pascal Soriot (AstraZeneca via YouTube)

Af­ter be­ing goad­ed to sell the com­pa­ny, Alex­ion's CEO set some am­bi­tious new goals for in­vestors. Then Pas­cal So­ri­ot came call­ing

Back in the spring of 2020, Alexion $ALXN CEO Ludwig Hantson was under considerable pressure to perform and had been for months. Elliott Advisers had been applying some high public heat on the biotech’s numbers. And in reaching out to some major stockholders, one thread of advice came through loud and clear: Sell the company or do something dramatic to change the narrative.

In the words of the rather dry SEC filing that offers a detailed backgrounder on the buyout deal, Alexion stated: ‘During the summer and fall of 2020, Alexion also continued to engage with its stockholders, and in these interactions, several stockholders encouraged the company to explore strategic alternatives.’

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