Agios, Seeking to Starve Cancer Cells to Death, Wins Support from Brain Tumor Foundation

Cancer cells can essentially get addicted to food, and Agios Pharmaceuticals thinks it has a groundbreaking way to starve them to death. Now it’s getting some help to test the idea from a foundation started by the family of AOL founder Steve Case.

The Cambridge, MA-based biotech company is announcing today that it has secured a grant of about $180,000 from Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure (ABC2), the Washington DC-based foundation founded by the Case family in 2001. Agios CEO David Schenkein, who got to know Case and the foundation when he ran cancer drug development at Genentech, filled me in on why he thinks this news matters even though the dollar amount isn’t huge.

Agios (pronounced AH-jee-ose) got up and running in July 2008 with a $33 million Series A venture round, to pursue its vision of blocking the super-fast metabolism of those hungry cancer cells. The company published its first big paper in Nature last month, in which it showed in tumor samples that an enzyme previously thought to be an innocent bystander in brain cancer patients can flip into an overactive, mutated mode, and create a metabolite that nourishes tumors. This begs a lot more questions, and the cash from ABC2 will enable Agios and its collaborators at UCLA to answer three important questions in brain cancer patients, Schenkein says. How much of the metabolite gets made? What tissues is it found in? And is there a connection between high levels of this metabolite and a worsening clinical outcome?

If those answers point Agios in the right direction, it will be off to the races toward developing a new drug for about 70 percent of brain cancer patients with a mutated form of the gene, called IDH1. About 22,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer of the brain and central nervous system each year, and almost 13,000 die from the disease each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

“We are turning the field upside down,” Schenkein says. “The science is potentially transformational.”

Of course, doing something potentially transformational also carries risks. Agios will have to have a deep understanding of the biology of the pathway before developing a drug to shut it down. And the company will have to make drugs that are extremely specific to the target … Next Page »

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