SQZ Biotech snags $65M to push cancer vaccine, break into infectious disease

SQZ Biotech is looking to propel its lead asset, a cancer vaccine for HPV-positive tumors, through phase 1 and expand its cell-squeezing technology beyond oncology into infectious diseases. And it's reeled in $65 million to do it.

The company’s pipeline is based on a cell therapy platform that squeezes cells, disrupting their membranes to get materials into them. In cancer treatments, this means engineering patients’ immune cells to present tumor antigens to CD8+—or killer—T cells. In theory, the T cells would then hunt down cells that express the target antigen, thereby mounting an attack on cancer.

It’s a theory that Roche has bought into; in 2015, the Big Pharma signed on to partner with the fledgling biotech, doubling down three years later with a deal expansion worth $125 million upfront but that could net SQZ more than $1 billion in development milestones alone. That partnership covers cancer programs using the company’s antigen-presenting cells (APCs), including its lead program, dubbed SQZ-PBMC-HPV, which targets HPV-positive solid tumors.

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The series D round, drawn from Temasek, GV, Illumina Ventures, Invus, Polaris Partners, NanoDimension and JDRF T1D Fund, will bankroll the ongoing phase 1 study of the HPV-targeting program and the development of its other technologies—activating antigen carriers (AACs) and tolerizing antigen carriers (TACs)—as well as expand its APC technology into infectious diseases.

For the phase 1 study, SQZ is turning patients’ cells into treatments within 24 hours. It hopes to create a point-of-care system that would enable the production of treatments wherever patients are getting care, so their cells don’t need to travel to a manufacturing site.

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“Our progress in oncology and recent expansion into the infectious disease space exemplifies the broad potential of the SQZ platforms. Coupled with our rapid central manufacturing and investment in developing a new point-of-care system, we believe SQZ’s differentiated approach to treating disease could provide meaningful benefit to many patients,” SQZ CEO Armon Sharei, Ph.D., said in a statement.

Although it shares its lead oncology assets with Roche, SQZ is working on its own cancer pipeline based on its AAC technology. Unlike APCs, which are based on patients’ white blood cells like T cells, B cells and monocytes, AACs are based on red blood cells. Once the engineered cells are returned to the patient, they travel to the liver and spleen, which present the antigen to helper and killer T cells.