Forma, After Building Cancer Drug Discovery Engine, Makes First Big Bet on Starving Tumors

Xconomy Boston — 

Forma Therapeutics could choose to do a lot of different things after spending its first couple years raising $50 million, forming a series of partnerships, and assembling a staff of 100 people around the world with all kinds of skills in the cancer drug R&D business.

After all that, Cambridge, MA-based Forma has decided to place one of its important early bets on a new drug that interferes with the overactive metabolism of cancer cells—which is a fancy way of saying it wants to kill tumors by starving them to death.

“This is a hot area, and a program we are really excited about,” says Forma’s co-founder and CEO, Steven Tregay.

Forma isn’t disclosing much about this program yet, although Tregay did mention it in interviews with me, and a reporter from Chemical & Engineering News, back in January. It’s noteworthy because it’s the first hint of where Forma intends to go as a drug developer, after it spent its first two years building up an unusually potent R&D group, at a time when most venture-backed biotech companies were pinching their pennies.

The company was founded in January 2009 by a trio of prominent scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Tregay, a former managing director at the Novartis Option Fund, didn’t have to look too far to get support for the new company—the original investment syndicate included Novartis Option Fund and Bio*One Capital of Singapore. Forma has had a whirlwind ride since then, clinching partnerships with Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST), the Experimental Therapeutics Centre of Singapore, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Long before it had ever thought seriously about taking its first drug into clinical trials, it raised another $27 million in financing, and struck a partnership with Japan-based Eisai Pharmaceuticals that brought in another $20 million payment to be spread over three years.

Fuelled by all that venture money and pharma cash, Forma has been busy at work building a pipeline of new drug candidates, Tregay says. The company has bucked the trend toward outsourcing and “virtual” drug development, to build a group of people with lots of the same skills that Big Pharma companies have. Forma has people who do detailed X-ray crystallography work to characterize 3-D structures of protein targets; those who do high-throughput screening of drug candidates; medicinal chemists who synthesize new experimental drugs; as well as a computational group and pharmacology team. By getting all those people with different skills together, Forma spent last year running 30 different drug-screening campaigns against a dozen different new drug targets, Tregay says.

Steven Tregay

This focused effort has given him a pipeline with a lot more depth than the usual biotech company, which often concentrates all its resources on a single lead program, or maybe two.

“With these core capabilities, you can be very efficient,” Tregay says. “The kind of productivity we’re seeing is not something you can outsource and manage effectively. It gives us a breadth of a pipeline, and a number of programs we can choose to work on.”

The most exciting program so far from this amped-up discovery effort is in the field of cancer metabolism, Tregay says. Other companies are in hot pursuit … Next Page »

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