Epizyme Takes $6M Upfront in Cancer Drug Deal with Eisai

Xconomy Boston — 

Cambridge, MA-based Epizyme has nabbed another pharmaceutical partnership. Two months after announcing a deal worth as much as $650 million with GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), the startup says today that it has landed a partnership with the Japanese drugmaker Eisai to develop drugs against an epigenetic enzyme for treating lymphomas and other cancers.

In its latest deal, Epizyme gets $6 million from Eisai at the start and potentially more than $200 million in milestone payments for various research, development, and sales goals tied to drugs against the EZH2 enzyme target. Tokyo-based Eisai, which has been expanding its investment in cancer research in Cambridge of late, has also agreed to finance all R&D expenses for the program through early human studies or “human proof-of-concept.” Epizyme then has an option to share in the profits and commercialization of products through its partnership with Eisai in the U.S.

The companies aim to develop drugs against this epigenetic target along with a genetic test that shows whether a patient’s cancer has the right genetic profile to respond to the treatments, a strategy that is being used more and more after the success other cancer drugs that use similar approaches such as Roche’s trastuzumab (Herceptin) for breast cancer and, most recently, Plexxikon and Roche’s PLX4032 for melanoma. This deal also provides another endorsement of Epizyme’s research, which is focused on a class of epigenetic enzymes called histone methyltransferases that are believed to play roles in cancers and other diseases.

In general, the field of epigenetics explores how certain genes get turned on and off without changing the underlying DNA code. While Epizyme has made cancer the focus of its research, the firm also sees an opportunity for drugs against epigenetic targets to treat inflammation, metabolic disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases. And the startup’s deal with London-based Glaxo covers cancer and other types of diseases.

From left: Jason Rhodes, chief business officer of Epizyme, and Robert Gould, president and CEO of Epizyme.

Eisai is also taking yet another step to increase its stake in Boston-area cancer drug development with its Epizyme deal. Last month, Eisai said it planned to invest $200 million over 10 years in a Cambridge-based venture called H3 Biomedicine, which is collaborating with scientific luminaries in the Boston area to discover drugs that target weak points in tumors. As of last month, Eisai already employed about 300 people at its R&D operation in Andover, MA, where it does some of its oncology research. And the company has had Boston-area research presence since the 1980s.

“Epizyme’s proprietary product platform; leadership in determining the oncogenic role of EZH2 in genetically-defined cancers; and success in discovering novel, potent, and selective small molecule inhibitors of histone methyltransferases, an important epigenetic target class, led us to them as the partner of choice in epigenetic drug discovery,” Takashi Owa, president of Eisai’s oncology product creation unit, said in a press release.

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