Agios, Seeking to Starve Cancer Cells to Death, Wins Support from Brain Tumor Foundation
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of interest, and which don’t hit similar structures on cells that are carrying out the usual metabolic functions we all need to live. Agios is working on “extremely targeted” small molecule drugs to block the enzyme targets it has in mind, Schenkein says.
But these are clearly heady days at Agios. There was a lot of can-do optimism in the air when I visited the company’s office on Sidney Street in early November, just a few weeks before the Nature paper came out on IDH1. I talked with a couple of key Agios employees, Lenny Dang, the director of biochemistry, and John Evans, the director of business development and operations.
While a lot of companies have pinched pennies this year, Agios has moved aggressively, even though it was born just a couple months before the financial crisis hit hard in September 2008. Agios has 27 employees in Cambridge, who work with a team of 30 chemists in China and India.
Agios sees itself carving out a whole new niche within the cancer drug development world. There are drugs that choke off the blood supply to tumors, and block rapid-fire proliferation signals that are a hallmark of tumors. While there’s growing interest in starving cancer cells to death by blocking metabolic pathways, there isn’t a drug on the market to point to that has proven an approach like this can work.
Part of the mission this year has been to “lock up” the intellectual property around cancer metabolism so that Agios can be in a dominant position as the field matures over time, Evans says. “We want to be the IP gateway for cancer metabolism like Alnylam is for RNAi,” he says.
Other pharmaceutical companies are interested in cancer metabolism, but “nobody has built the scientific engine we have now,” Schenkein says. Over time, the strategy will be to form partnerships with bigger companies to help pay the R&D bills, although Schenkein wasn’t making any promises about a deal being imminent. When I asked about how much cash he had left in the bank, he noted, “We still have significant runway ahead of us.”
The employees didn’t sound concerned about hitting their milestones. The operation runs 24/7 with its offices in other parts of the world, Dang says, so experiments are running all the time and data is constantly pinging around the world via phone, e-mail, and Skype. “It’s an awesome place for science here,” Dang says.
“We have a bold vision,” he adds. “We’re not afraid to fail, which is how you need to be if you want to transform medicine. David [Schenkein] really gets that tone, and that vision. We want to build the leading cancer metabolism company.”