SQZ Biotech, a spinoff company from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aims to open a new path in immunotherapy with its cell-compressing technique. Cell-based immunotherapies, which often involve engineering cells to activate or suppress the immune system, have delivered some dramatic results to cancer (lat. Carcinoma) patients with few other options. But the complex process of developing these therapies has limited a field that many believe could be a powerful new frontier in medicine. Using a proprietary platform and an unconventional approach, startup SQZ Biotech is trying to expand immunotherapy’s impact by simplifying the process of engineering immune cells, thus unlocking a slew of new applications for the technology.
CAR T-cell therapies were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017. They work by extracting a patient’s T cells, known as the soldiers of the immune system, and genetically engineering them to attack cancer cells. The engineered T cells are then injected back into the patient. The process has demonstrated the remarkable potential of immunotherapy, but it is still being refined, has certain limitations, and can be prohibitively expensive.
SQZ’s lead programs avoid genetic engineering to modulate long-term immune responses. The company’s current focus in oncology is on a broad class of cells known as antigen presenting cells, or APCs, which is described as the 'generals of the immune system.' APCs can instruct a patient’s T cells to attack cancerous cells by presenting the right antigens on their surface in a function of the immune system that occurs naturally.
Engineering APCs to drive specific immune responses has been a struggle for researchers to date, but SQZ has shown that their platform offers a simple, scalable way to tackle the issue. The platform works by squeezing a patient’s immune cells through narrow channels on a microfluidic chip, making the cell membranes temporarily open up. Tumor-associated antigens are inserted into the cells and then naturally present on the cell’s surface, creating an APC. The engineered APCs can then be given back to the patient, where they can instruct the patient’s T cells as they naturally would, offering a relatively simple way to train T cells to attack cancer cells.
Conversely, when SQZ’s technology is used to target autoimmune diseases, red blood cells can be squeezed and manipulated to suppress an immune response, which could lead to an innovative approach to treating chronic auto-immune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes (lat. Diabetes Mellitus).