Helmed by 29-Year-Old CEO, Boston's SQZ Biotech (Pronounced “Squeeze”) Nabs $16 Million and Hires Former Novartis AG CAR-T Exec as CBO

Helmed by 29-Year-Old CEO, Boston's SQZ Biotech (Pronounced “Squeeze”) Nabs $16M and Hires Former Novartis CAR-T Exec as CBO September 30, 2016
By Mark Terry, BioSpace.com Breaking News Staff

Boston-based SQZ Biotech, pronounced “squeeze,” announced that it had closed on a Series B financing round worth $16 million. The round was led by NanoDimension and Polaris Partners, and other existing and new investors took part.

SQZ is run by co-founder and chief executive officer Armon Sharei, 29 years old. The company’s technology platform, called CellSqueeze, was discovered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) by Klavs Jensen, Robert Langer and Sharei. CellSqueeze is an inexpensive microchip that has tiny channels through which cells can be forced using gas pressure. This results in tearing small openings in cell membranes for a few seconds afterwards, making it easier for anything present to enter the cells.

This seems to have broad applications. According to Ben Fidler writing for Xconomy, “SQZ thinks it’s a way to arm cells to help kill cancer, and perhaps to treat autoimmune and infectious diseases, too, according to CEO Armon Sharei.”

In December 2015, SQZ partnered with Roche to develop a cell therapy platform that would help a patient’s immune system fight cancer. It leverages SQZ’s CellSqueeze to engineer B cells to fight cancer. The deal totals more than $500 million in upfront and possible milestone payments, as well as royalties.

“The therapeutic potential of SQZ technology builds on our groundbreaking ability to engineer cell function through intracellular delivery—a longstanding challenge in immunology,” Sharei said in a statement in December. “In collaboration with the renowned team at Roche , we seek to engineer a patient’s own immune system to target tumors more effectively and bring hope to people suffering from cancer.”

The approach is to use CellSqueeze to introduce proteins into a patient’s B-cells that will then stimulate killer T-cells to attack cancer cells.

Fidler notes that SQZ’s technology and other companies see an opening in immune-oncology treatments, such as CAR-T, that they can fill. In CAR-T, patients’ T-cells are engineered to better fight cancer cells. They have been very effective in some blood cancers, with Kite Pharma , Juno Therapeutics and Novartis all racing to be first.

Other companies working in the area include Cellectis , Celgene andbluebird bio . But there have been problems, including three patient deaths in a Juno clinical trial. Although CAR-T stimulates T-cells, sometimes they overstimulate them in a potentially fatal mechanism called cytokine release syndrome.

The idea with SQZ is that its cell-stuffing technology doesn’t directly modify T-cells. Fidler writes, “SQZ’s B cell-targeting method is untested in humans, but if it works, it might have some advantages to current CAR-T treatments, which can take weeks to produce and wipe out healthy B cells along with the cancerous ones. Sharei says SQZ’s treatments should spare healthy cells and could be produced much faster than CAR-T therapies. They are still in preclinical testing. Sharei declines to say when they might reach clinical trials.”

In addition to the Series B, SQZ hired Kris Elverum to act as chief business officer, leading business development and strategic partnerships. Prior to joining SQZ, Kris headed the U.S. commercial model development for Novartis’ CAR-T products.

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