Langer startup SQZ hopes to spark a tech revolution in immuno-oncology

An illustration depicting the CellSqueeze technology for human-derived cells--Courtesy of SQZ Biotech

Another one of Robert Langer's former grad students at MIT has leveraged a lab project into a new and fast-growing biotech. A mentoring relationship with the hyper-entrepreneurial star scientist and MIT's Klavs Jensen has put Armon Sharei at the head of a small biotech upstart--Boston-based SQZ Biotech--that hopes to largely replace decades of work on viral vectors with a new technology that's designed to quickly and easily put "stuff" inside a cell.

Sharei banked a $5 million A round led by Langer's longtime colleagues at Polaris to get in business with a staff set to swell to 16, with plans to partner on some hot fields. And immuno-oncology is in the center ring. 20/20 Healthcare Partners and others also participated in the Series A, which followed a $1 million seed round.

To understand SQZ, consider the frenzy of research effort around new CAR-Ts. Scientists have been weaponizing T cells by reengineering them to express chimeric antigen receptors, a process that now requires the use of a virus for inserting materials into cells. But what if there was a more efficient way to, say, feed tumor-associated antigens into immune cells, turning them into more efficient cancer cell killers without the safety issues of the first-generation CARs?

Sharei, Langer and Jensen think they found a way.

After struggling to develop a microfluidic "gun" that could shoot material into cells, says the newly minted biotech CEO, they serendipitously found that if you squeezed a cell through a device it disrupted the membrane, allowing the scientists easy access to the interior, introducing the material they wanted. Only with this technology, says Sharei, you can also avoid the safety issues of CARs while amping the efficacy associated with the viral vector approach.

Armon Sharei

The technology "engineers cells to make them more effective," says Sharei.

"I think this will be a sea change in cellular delivery (Scientific American named it the number 2 biggest advance last year, CRISPR being 1st)," Langer noted in an email to FierceBiotech. "Immediate killer apps are in immune-oncology and autoimmune disease, but expect there will be many more." 

Sharei adds infectious diseases to that list, adding that it's the kind of technology that has multiple applications--too many to go after alone. And that is likely to set the stage for a common strategy in biotech, as the upstart decides what they want to maintain control of and what they prefer to partner on.

There are some plug-and-play type deals that could blaze a short path to the clinic, says Sharei, as well as longer term projects that could occupy the company for much longer. And while Sharei says his scientific background won't permit him to say that the tech can substitute 100% of the viral vector work now underway, he's not shy about asserting that it could trigger a revolution in the field that would eliminate "most" of those applications.

For now, SQZ is relying on animal studies to back its theory, with plenty of work to be done to get into the clinic.

Sharei helped demonstrate again that working in Langer's lab is one of the best ways to train yourself for a role in biotech. Justin Hanes went on from the Langer lab to help start Kala, another delivery-oriented biotech. And Langer joined former student Omid Farokhzad to launch Selecta, Bind ($BIND) and Blend.