Agios, Nourished with $130M Celgene Deal, Expanding Staff and Labs to Starve Cancer

8/19/10

[Editor's note, Aug. 23, 2010: Updated and corrected, see below.] David Schenkein, the CEO of the biotech startup Agios Pharmaceuticals, walked into the firm’s Cambridge, MA, headquarters last week with building plans rolled up in his hand. It was evident that his three-year-old company is growing quickly to pursue new drugs to starve cancer cells, and that it has the funds to do it because of the $130 million the firm received this spring through a deal with the cancer drugmaker Celgene (NASDAQ:CELG).

Summit, NJ-based Celgene’s large payment to Agios is uncommon. Not only is it a huge sum for a young biotech to grab, the deal gives Celgene the exclusive option to license any of the potentially cancer-starving drugs that Agios discovers for a certain period of time (neither company will say how long). The unique quality of this deal prompted me to head down to Agios’s labs and also talk to Celgene last week to learn why exactly this deal came together.

For starters, Schenkein has always been clear about his desire to keep Agios on the cutting edge of the emerging cancer metabolism field. The firm wants to develop drugs that target mutated enzymes that are believed to be culprits in feeding certain cancer cells’ addiction to specific nutrients that enable them to grow out of control. The idea sounds simple: wipe out the mutated enzymes, starve the cancer cells to death. But key discoveries that have exposed these cancer-enabling enzymes have only just surfaced in academic journals over the past several years, Schenkein says, even though it’s been known since the 1920s that cancer cells metabolize nutrients differently than healthy cells do.

This emerging field is drawing interest from drugmakers around the world. To find its own drugs to target cancer metabolism, British drugmaker AstraZeneca says it formed a three-year research deal with Cancer Research UK in February. London-based drug giant GlaxoSmithKline has been assembling its own internal drug discovery group to find molecules to home in on cancer metabolism targets. Those are just two of several groups in the hunt. And all alone, it’d be impossible for Agios to match the level of resources that larger outfits like AstraZeneca and Glaxo can deploy.

“We view this space as really beginning to explode,” Schenkein said. “Over the next three to five years, as more players move into this space, it’s going to be a bit of a … Next Page »

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