Agios Pharmaceuticals Forges Ahead With Lab to Starve Cancer Cells

11/24/08Follow @xconomy

Agios Pharmaceuticals is moving full steam ahead. The company has moved into a new 21,000-square-foot space in Cambridge, MA, that it says is the world’s largest lab devoted to studying how to throw a wrench into the overactive metabolism of cancer cells that normally allows them to grow and thrive. It has also recruited five new scientific advisers from top academic centers to help direct the work.

Agios (pronounced AHH-jee-oce) burst on the Boston biotech scene after the Fourth of July weekend, when it announced it had raised $33 million in an initial venture financing from Boston-based Third Rock Ventures, Flagship Ventures of Cambridge, and Seattle’s Arch Venture Partners. The company’s driving concept is that cancer cells become addicted to food. Basically, they have highly active metabolic enzymes, like those in fetal cells, that spur faster-than-normal growth. The key to stopping cancer cells in their tracks would therefore be to develop drugs that interrupt that rapid-fire metabolism. I got an update on the company’s progress in its first 100 days from interim CEO Kevin Starr, a partner with Third Rock.

The company’s founding lab is being set up at the University Park at MIT, a mixed-use development a short walk from Central Square. It has hired 10 employees there, who will work with 20 colleagues in China and India doing chemistry work, Starr says. Another 10 or 20 employees will be hired at the Cambridge site by the end of March, he says. Agios is identifying new targets to aim drugs at, and designing conventional small-molecule oral pills to block those pathways, he says. It’s also looking at whether existing metabolic drugs might be useful if designed differently for cancer. He wasn’t too specific about which tumor types the company is pursuing, but Agios has four different drug discovery programs moving ahead, and its first drug candidate could enter clinical trials by 2011, he says.

It sure sounded to me like Agios hasn’t eased up on the throttle much in the past 100 days, and isn’t too concerned about conserving its pennies in a worsening downturn. Starr said simply that the company’s strategy demands being nimble and making a big investment to seize this opportunity before someone else does.

“We believe that to build innovative, breakthrough companies it takes a boldness of vision and execution,” Starr says. “To make the strategy work, we need to invest in a big way.”

People, of course, are also key. Agios was founded by Lewis Cantley of Harvard Medical School, Tak Mak of the University of Toronto, and Craig Thompson of the University of Pennsylvania. Those folks all kept their day jobs at their academic institutions, and are being joined by another quintet of advisers from top research centers. They are: Chi Van Dang of Johns Hopkins University, Joshua Rabinowitz of Princeton University, Clary Clish of the Broad Institute, and Matthew Vander Heiden and James Bradner of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Agios’ ability to quickly rally all these players around the cancer metabolism work has already drawn interest from a half-dozen potential pharmaceutical partners, Starr says.

The company’s agenda for the next six months suggests it doesn’t intend to make cutbacks. It plans to hire more people, advance its four drug discovery programs toward identifying lead drug candidates, hire a permanent CEO and chief scientific officer, publish some of its work in top scientific journals, and sign a significant pharmaceutical industry partnership in 2009, Starr says. I interviewed Starr after a long week of interviews with biotech CEOs, and I’d say he was probably the most upbeat of any of them. “We’re excited. The more we get into this space, we see this is a breakthrough area in cancer. Getting key people involved is validation of it,” he says.

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