SQZ Biotech May Have Found a More Effective Method for Drug Delivery

It involves squeezing cells to get therapeutic materials inside.

Armon Sharei discovered the technology behind his company, SQZ Biotech, largely by accident.

Sharei, then a graduate student at MIT, was working on a project with professor Klavs Jensen, who was trying to develop a miniaturized gun that could shoot material into cells. Instead, the team discovered that squeezing cells could be a more effective way to infuse them with therapeutic agents and engineer them to fight disease.

“When we first observed this, it was just ridiculous that this was even working,” Sharei remembers. “It was never the plan to squeeze cells to get stuff in; it was kind of an observation we had while we were doing something else, and it really held up and was able to make a big difference.”

Since then, Sharei, Jensen, and famed bioengineer Robert Langer have worked to develop that chance discovery into SQZ’s (pronounced “squeeze”) token technology, aptly named CellSqueeze. Essentially, it works by sending cells down a channel at high speeds until they hit a constriction point. Then, the cells are squeezed enough that the cell membrane temporarily breaks down, allowing materials to enter the cells. When the membrane heals, those materials stay inside—potentially giving doctors a new way to deliver drugs directly to the source of disease.

Right now, SQZ is focusing its technology on cancer treatment, but Sharei says it doesn’t have to stop there. “I don’t think this is inherently limited to cancer,” he says. “In the future we could go into areas like autoimmunity or infectious disease, but cancer seems like a good place to start just because it’s such a terrible disease and also there’s more willingness to take risk in that area.”

Targeted therapy is not a new concept, but Sharei says squeezing cells could be more effective and have fewer consequences than conventional drugs, making it a promising development for disease treatment. “We seem to have this new avenue to engineer a patient’s cells in unique ways and potentially usher in a new era of therapeutics where you’re really training the person’s own cells to really fight the disease for them,” Sharei says.