Foghorn Therapeutics Inks Chromatin-Targeting Cancer Deal with Merck

Xconomy Boston — 

One way that a cell regulates which genes in its DNA are expressed and when is by altering the structure of the fibers that are formed by the genetic material and associated proteins, packaging that’s referred to as chromatin.

Foghorn Therapeutics, which emerged in 2018 with plans to discover and develop new cancer drugs by targeting the chromatin regulatory system, announced its first major deal with a biopharma on Wednesday.

The Cambridge, MA-based biotech will work with Merck—known as MSD outside North America—to aid the development of drugs that target a particular transcription factor­—a protein that helps to turn specific genes “off” or “on.” The transcription factor­ in question is one that the companies believe, when its activity goes awry, plays a role in a number of cancers.

Under the deal terms, Foghorn will get a payment up front plus more money as it hits research milestones. The company could also receive up to $425 million depending on development, regulatory, and commercial progress of any drugs advanced under the deal, plus royalties on sales of any that reach the market. In exchange, Merck gets the right to develop and commercialize any drugs the companies together create that target dysregulation of the transcription factor.

“Foghorn aims to be thoughtful about what to partner and with whom, as we aim to build an integrated biotech and advance several of our programs into the clinic ourselves,” president and CEO Adrian Gottschalk (pictured) told Xconomy.

Since its launch Foghorn has used its research into how to systematically drug the chromatin regulatory system to start at least 10 preclinical programs. The drug candidates, small molecules and protein degraders, are being evaluated in a wide range of cancers, Gottschalk says.

Later this year Foghorn plans to ask the FDA to clear one of its programs for human testing, Gottschalk said. The company isn’t yet sharing details about that first drug candidate or its target.

According to Foghorn, dysregulation of the chromatin system may play a role in cancers that impact about 2.5 million patients in the US, Europe, and Japan, and in other diseases too.

“There is broad evidence for the role of dysregulated transcription factors in multiple cancer types, but these have been difficult targets to drug,” Nick Haining, Merck’s vice president of oncology, said in a prepared statement.

Foghorn launched in March 2018 with $50 million from company creator Flagship Pioneering. Cigall Kadoch of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Stanford University’s Gerald Crabtree founded the biotech in 2016 with Doug Cole, a managing partner at Flagship. (The year it launched, the company and Kadoch were both Xconomy Award finalists.)

CEO Gottschalk formerly headed neurodegeneration research at Biogen (NASDAQ: BIIB).

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