Epizyme Unveils Technology, Targeting Cancer with Epigenetic Drugs

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New York University School of Medicine. Constellation’s chief business officer, Neil Exter, didn’t return a phone message last week, though, and it’s still a bit of a mystery whether the startup plans to develop drugs targeting the same enzymes as Epizyme.

At both Epizyme and Constellation, venture capitalists are making a big bet on science that is largely unproven in human clinical trials. But the bet could prove to be well worth the risk because of the tremendous value that could be built in translating cutting-edge science into a new generation of drugs.

Indeed, that was the frame of mind at MPM when the firm held a meeting in the summer of 2007 to discuss exciting investment opportunities in the field of oncology. The room at MPM’s office in South San Francisco was packed with some heavy hitters in the field, recalls Epizyme co-founder and MPM managing director Ashley Dombkowski, including the chair of MPM’s scientific advisory board, H. Robert Horvitz, an MIT biology professor and Nobel Laureate. (MPM last year provided Luke with some insights on that meeting, in which Epizyme was first conceived.)

“We brought together folks from a lot of different areas that we thought would be interesting for starting new companies—and we were thinking big and broad,” Dombkowski says. Along with epigenetics, the MPM meeting focused on other areas of interest such as cancer stem cells.

But epigenetics rose to the top after Zhang, who had been invited to talk about his research at UNC, gave his presentation. “Yi brought the house down,” says Shiosaki, who was also at the meeting. Inspired by Zhang, Horvitz approached the younger scientist and asked him if he wanted to start a company. (Horvitz and Zhang are the scientific co-founders of Epizyme.)

After the meeting, Dombkowski says, she brought the idea for the company to Brook Byers and Beth Seidenberg at well-known venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in Menlo Park, CA. It turned out that Kleiner Perkins had been looking into making an investment in the epigenetics field and Epizyme fit the bill. MPM and Kleiner Perkins joined forced to raise an undisclosed amount of money in a first-round financing for the startup in early 2008. Seidenberg and Dombkowski are on the board of directors, which includes industry heavyweights such as Richard Pops, chairman of Cambridge, MA-based biotech Alkermes (NASDAQ:ALKS), and Robert Gould, who heads the novel therapeutics program at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Last summer and fall, Epizyme added two senior-level scientific executives to its team: chief scientific officer Robert Copeland, a former vice president of the cancer drug discovery group at London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, and Victoria Richon, vice president of biological sciences, who was one of the scientists who discovered Merck’s epigenetic drug vorinostat as a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Today, Shiosaki says, the 12-person company is focused on discovering drugs to target two HMT enzymes. One of the enzymes is believed to play a role in “liquid cancers” like leukemia, and the other in solid tumors. Her goal is to have identified drug candidates for these two epigenetic targets by the end of 2009.

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