Roche puts up $125M to expand SQZ cell therapy pact

SQZ's Armon Sharei
SQZ CEO Armon Sharei speaks at an event. (SQZ)

Roche has committed $125 million in upfront and near-term payments to expand its partnership with SQZ Biotechnologies. The revised deal sets Roche up to work with SQZ on antigen-presenting cells designed to trigger killer T cell attacks against tumors.

SQZ is built upon microfluidic technology that squeezes cells to allow materials to cross membranes. Applied to cancer, the technology enables SQZ to create cells that present tumor antigens to CD8 T cells. In theory, these killer T cells will then hunt down cells that express the target antigen, resulting in strong immune responses against tumors.

Roche provided an early validation of SQZ’s potential when it struck a deal focused on peripheral blood mononuclear cells with the then-fledgling MIT spinout in 2015. And, after several years of internal and partnered progress, SQZ has persuaded Roche to stump up more money to expand the relationship.

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The terms (PDF) reflect the progress SQZ has made. While neither party disclosed the size of the upfront in 2015, SQZ has been more forthcoming about the terms of the meatier expansion. Roche is set to pay $125 million in the form of an upfront fee and near-term milestones. Beyond that, the Big Pharma is on the hook for $250 million in clinical, regulatory and sales milestones per product, plus more than $1 billion in development milestones.

In return, Roche has secured the chance to jointly develop anticancer cell therapies with SQZ. The plan is to develop cell therapies that, like other drugs in the class, trigger antitumor responses. SQZ and Roche think their candidates will have notable differentiators, though. 

The approach is expected to yield cell therapies that can target antigens that are beyond the reach of other cell-based adoptive immunity strategies. And SQZ’s technology could eliminate the need to perform cellular expansion or genetic modifications, making its cells faster and cheaper to produce than other therapies.

SQZ has yet to deliver clinical data to validate its confidence in the approach, but there are signs that the company is on the right track. Roche, having had a front-row seat for SQZ’s progress, has doubled down on the biotech. And investors committed $72 million to the startup in August to equip it to take candidates toward the clinic.