Broad Institute Scientists’ Forma Therapeutics Raises $25M, Aims to Knock Out Underpinnings of Cancer

Xconomy Boston — 

Forma Therapeutics, a startup company co-founded by scientists at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has raised $25 million to create drugs that build on research that has yielded clues about the root genetic causes of what makes a cell turn cancerous.

Forma, based in Cambridge, MA, was formed 2007 to generate drug compounds that hit recently discovered cancer targets. Backed by sources including the Novartis Option Fund in Cambridge and Bio*One Capital of Singapore, Forma plans to unveil today its strategy for discovering new cancer treatments and its team of founders, which includes three stars from the Broad—Todd Golub, Stuart Schreiber, and Michael Foley.

The company intends to build on years of a $100 million federally-funded initiative at the Broad Institute, and other research centers around the country, called the Cancer Genome Atlas, to identify critical genes that can go awry and play a role in causing cancer.

“Forma recognizes the opportunity that lies in the discoveries of The Cancer Genome [Atlas] project, and we assemble the tools to go after the more difficult targets,” says Steven Tregay, CEO and co-founder of Forma.

Tregay, who had served as acting CEO of Forma, left his post as a managing director at the Novartis Option Fund in Cambridge in fall 2008 to become the full-time chief executive of the startup. Novartis Option Fund, formed by Swiss drug giant Novartis in 2007 (and which I profiled last year), is a lead investor in Forma along with Bio*One Capital, an investment arm of the Singaporean government.

Forma, which has operated under the radar until today, is using a combination of drug-discovery technologies to develop a pipeline of anti-cancer drugs. In September, Forma acquired SolMap Pharmaceuticals for its computer-based drug design technology, through a divestiture from its parent company, Mercury Computer Systems (NASDAQ:MRCY), of Chelmsford, MA. Last summer Forma hired Jim Kyranos, a former vice president at Woburn, MA-based biotech firm ArQule (NASDAQ:ARQL), for his expertise in high-speed synthesis of compounds.

Tregay wouldn’t disclose the specific cancer types or molecular targets Forma plans to pursue, yet he did note that the focus would be on cancer targets with validated genetic profiles. And the CEO did point me to articles on the firm’s Web site that cover discoveries made through The Cancer Genome Atlas project to shed more light on the types of cancer targets in which the company is interested. (I also expect more details about Forma’s operations to surface through partnership deals Tregay says his firm expects to announce in the coming weeks, one of which will involve an option agreement to co-develop drugs with Novartis.)

I remember Tregay told me last year that Forma had a “who’s who” list of founders. Now I see he wasn’t kidding. The founding group includes: Schreiber, director of chemical biology at the Broad and a co-founder of large biotech firm Vertex Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:VRTX), headquartered in Cambridge; Golub, director of the cancer program who holds appointments at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; and Foley, director of the Broad’s chemical biology platform and the scientific founder of Cambridge-based biotech firm CombinatoRx (NASDAQ:CRXX). Golub and others were part of teams at the Broad, and more than a dozen institutions around the country, who have taken part in The Cancer Genome project. In 2006, the National Institutes of Health committed some $100 million on this initiative, which has aimed to apply advances such as high-throughput genetic sequencing to find new ways to treat and diagnose cancer.

Broad member and Forma co-founder Foley (who went to graduate school with Tregay at Harvard University) told me yesterday that pharmaceutical companies are itching to work on new compounds to address to difficult targets uncovered in The Cancer Genome project. In fact, he says that pharma officials contacted him during summer to inquire about Forma when word got out in some circles that the firm was developing new anti-cancer compounds.

“All kinds of new [cancer] targets are going to come on line,” Foley says, “and… there is a critical need for new chemical matter” to effectively address these new cancer targets.

Forma’s strategy is to rapidly generate compounds with the potential to become cancer drugs. To tap drug-discovery capabilities and experts around the world, Forma now has operations in Cambridge, Branford, CT, Beijing and Singapore. The firm’s Beijing operation is due to its partnership with Yigong Shi, a molecular biologist at Tsinghua University, who is an expert on identifying the structure of proteins involved in tumor growth. (Shi also has a faculty appointment at Princeton University.)

Tregay says that knowing the three-dimensional structure of cancer proteins is part of Forma’s strategy to identify areas of the proteins that are vulnerable to drugs. The company plans to combine those insights of molecular structures with computer-based drug design and chemical synthesis techniques to generate its anti-cancer compounds.