Forma, After Building Cancer Drug Discovery Engine, Makes First Big Bet on Starving Tumors

3/10/11Follow @xconomy

Forma Therapeutics could choose to do a lot of different things after spending its first couple years raising $50 million, forming a series of partnerships, and assembling a staff of 100 people around the world with all kinds of skills in the cancer drug R&D business.

After all that, Cambridge, MA-based Forma has decided to place one of its important early bets on a new drug that interferes with the overactive metabolism of cancer cells—which is a fancy way of saying it wants to kill tumors by starving them to death.

“This is a hot area, and a program we are really excited about,” says Forma’s co-founder and CEO, Steven Tregay.

Forma isn’t disclosing much about this program yet, although Tregay did mention it in interviews with me, and a reporter from Chemical & Engineering News, back in January. It’s noteworthy because it’s the first hint of where Forma intends to go as a drug developer, after it spent its first two years building up an unusually potent R&D group, at a time when most venture-backed biotech companies were pinching their pennies.

The company was founded in January 2009 by a trio of prominent scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Tregay, a former managing director at the Novartis Option Fund, didn’t have to look too far to get support for the new company—the original investment syndicate included Novartis Option Fund and Bio*One Capital of Singapore. Forma has had a whirlwind ride since then, clinching partnerships with Cubist Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: CBST), the Experimental Therapeutics Centre of Singapore, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Long before it had ever thought seriously about taking its first drug into clinical trials, it raised another $27 million in financing, and struck a partnership with Japan-based Eisai Pharmaceuticals that brought in another $20 million payment to be spread over three years.

Fuelled by all that venture money and pharma cash, Forma has been busy at work building a pipeline of new drug candidates, Tregay says. The company has bucked the trend toward outsourcing and “virtual” drug development, to build a group of people with lots of the same skills that Big Pharma companies have. Forma has people who do detailed X-ray crystallography work to characterize 3-D structures of protein targets; those who do high-throughput screening of drug candidates; medicinal chemists who synthesize new experimental drugs; as well as a computational group and pharmacology team. By getting all those people with different skills together, Forma spent last year running 30 different drug-screening campaigns against a dozen different new drug targets, Tregay says.

Steven Tregay

This focused effort has given him a pipeline with a lot more depth than the usual biotech company, which often concentrates all its resources on a single lead program, or maybe two.

“With these core capabilities, you can be very efficient,” Tregay says. “The kind of productivity we’re seeing is not something you can outsource and manage effectively. It gives us a breadth of a pipeline, and a number of programs we can choose to work on.”

The most exciting program so far from this amped-up discovery effort is in the field of cancer metabolism, Tregay says. Other companies are in hot pursuit of drugs that work in a similar manner, most notably Cambridge, MA-based Agios Pharmaceuticals, which struck a big deal a year ago with Summit, NJ-based Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG).

Tregay is still being pretty coy about what Forma actually has at the moment. He’s not disclosing the precise molecular target the company is going after. But he did say that an early drug candidate against this target was able to shrink tumors in mice for as long as 30 days, even when it was only given in tiny doses (10 to 15 milligrams per kilogram of body weight) for about five days. “This is an incredibly potent compound,” Tregay says. “We are seeing really dramatic efficacy. You rarely see things like that.”

It’s unlikely that Forma will be ready to take this lead drug program into clinical trials this year—but “we might be close,” Tregay says. Since Forma owns 100 percent of the commercial rights to this drug, it may choose to bring on a partner to help push it along more quickly through development, Tregay says.

All of the work Forma is doing is at the riskiest, most innovative end of the drug development spectrum, so any number of things could derail this program, and others Forma has in the works. I wondered how Forma was able to plow ahead so aggressively, when so many other companies were cutting back.

That was one of the more interesting parts of our conversation. Turns out that in 2009, there were lots of talented people available, lab space, and cheap equipment to scrape together as so many biotech companies cut back. By raising enough money early, and building a network of partnerships, Forma was able to grow aggressively without blowing through ridiculous amounts of cash. A big part of making this strategy work, though, was convincing the staff that a recession was a great time to step on the gas, rather than do what most everybody else was doing—cautiously tapping on the brakes until the economy improved.

When I asked Tregay how he made this case to the employees, he offered up a colorful analogy he sometimes uses to explain his thinking to the staff.

“Biotech is inherently about running into a brick wall,” Tregay says. “What are you going to do to create value before you get to that big cash-out date, the brick wall? You can jog at that brick wall, and not have a chance of jumping over it. It may not hurt as much, but you sure as hell aren’t going to jump over that brick wall. But if you are running at it, and you are learning how to pole-vault at the same time, at least you have a fighting chance.”

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