Roche allies with cell engineering startup SQZ on $500M+ immuno-oncology pact

SQZ CEO Armon Sharei

Roche ($RHHBY) cancer drug investigators have allied themselves with SQZ Biotech in Cambridge, MA, to see if the fledgling startup company with a grand design to execute on a fresh approach to cell engineering can deliver on the sizzling-hot immuno-oncology front.

A spinout of Robert Langer's lab at MIT, SQZ--a 2015 Fierce 15 company--has landed a collaboration with the pharma giant and cancer drug specialists at Roche that promises to pay out more than $500 million total if the new cell squeezing R&D technology at SQZ delivers a grand slam. There's no word on the upfront, but typically discovery deals like this are heavily back ended with development and commercial milestones.

"The key things we're going after is oncology indications," says SQZ CEO Armon Sharei, who recently landed a modest $5 million A round to get the company staffed up and pointed to the clinic with new therapies. "Getting proteins in B cells has not been possible with conventional systems."

The big idea here is that SQZ can insert tumor related antigens into cells extracted from patients and then put them back in the patient. The company discovered, almost accidentally, that when you squeeze a cell the right way it will disrupt the surface, opening doors to introduce molecules inside the cell. In addition to cancer and immuno-oncology, where cell engineering has inspired a tsunami of new development programs, the company sees some big potential for autoimmune diseases.

"Your immune system gets activated against fragments," says Sharei, noting that a cell will throw out these fragments to the surface, flagging an immune system attack as T cells attack the cancer. And for Roche, it's a chance to take the lead in a new, potentially groundbreaking tech niche for cell therapies, a field that has been dominated by rivals like Novartis.

"The deal leverages SQZ's pioneering technology to engineer B cells as a therapeutic platform for oncology – a novel approach with the potential to overcome many of the shortcomings of current cell-based therapies," a spokesperson for Roche tells FierceBiotech in a statement. "We have been monitoring this space and have been looking for technological advancements that could expand the use of cellular therapies across an array of tumor types and indications. Although early, we believe that the SQZ technology is a step in this direction." 

"What's critical here is that this is a long-term commitment to develop therapeutics together," says Amy Schulman, the Polaris partner positioned to help oversee the biotech's progress as executive chairman of the board.

Special Report: FierceBiotech's 2015 Fierce 15 - SQZ Biotech