Roche Decides Not to Exercise Solid Tumor Option with SQZ

Pictured: Long-distance shot of Roche Tower/iStock, olli0815

Pictured: Long-distance shot of Roche Tower/iStock, olli0815

It’s been a tough year for SQZ Biotechnologies. The beleaguered cell therapy company announced Tuesday that partner Roche wouldn’t be exercising its solid tumor option with SQZ, despite promising Phase I results, sending the Massachusetts-based biotech scrambling to find alternative partnerships.

The two companies partnered back in 2015 and expanded their collaboration by 2018. Under the terms of the 2018 deal, SQZ was eligible for up to $125 million upfront, with another $1.25 billion potentially up for grabs should products developed out of that partnership hit certain milestones.

However, Roche decided it wouldn’t be exercising its option for programs targeting HPV 16 positive solid tumors. As a result, SQZ will regain full clinical development and future commercialization rights for its programs, according to Tuesday’s announcement

SQZ’s interim CEO Howard Bernstein said in a statement that the company “intends to explore potential strategic partnerships to support the advancement of its oncology programs and platforms.”

The announcement comes despite encouraging, though limited, Phase I results. In March 2023, SQZ announced that it had observed a “confirmed complete response” in the first patient of its lowest-dose cohort in the SQZ-AAC-HPV-101 trial. 

SQZ and Roche were developing products based on antigen presenting cells (APC), which essentially work by priming the immune system’s killer T cells to “potentially drive antitumor activity,” the company said. The Phase I trial was investigating the therapy for treatment of HPV 16 positive advanced or metastatic tumors.

This isn’t the only bad news the biotech has gotten recently. SQZ ended 2022 by slashing 60% of its workforce and bringing in Bernstein as interim CEO as the company shifted gears from its first-generation APCs to its second-generation enhanced APCs (EAPC) cell therapy program aimed at HPV 16 positive tumors.

The layoffs cost SQZ an estimated $5 million but extended its runway, with its third-quarter financial report projecting its $84.2 million in cash and cash equivalents would be enough to last until the end of 2023. However, the company also put other programs on ice. In late November 2022, SQZ said it was going to pause programs that use its APC, active antigen carrier and tolerizing antigen carrier (TAC) programs.

The move wasn’t popular with shareholders, and the stock price quickly fell to just over $2 a share. That got worse, with the company stock falling below $1 per share for over 30 consecutive days, prompting the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) to put the company on notice that it was out of compliance. That notice also gave SQZ six months to reverse its plunging stock price. However, by July 3, the NYSE started delisting proceedings against the company.

“As we move into the second half of this year, we are committed to assessing all of the Company’s potential strategic alternatives in an effort to advance our programs,” Bernstein said.

Connor Lynch is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada. Reach him at

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