Forma Cuts $65M Deal With Boehringer Ingelheim to Discover Cancer Drugs

1/5/12Follow @xconomy

Another six months have gone by, so it must be time for another deal for Forma Therapeutics.

Sure enough, Watertown, MA-based Forma is announcing today it has struck a partnership to discover new cancer drugs with Germany-based Boehringer Ingelheim. The deal provides $65 million to Forma in a combination of upfront cash and four years’ worth of steady R&D financing. Forma could end up getting as much as $750 million in milestone payments as the drug candidates advance through development in the Boehringer Ingelheim’s pipeline. Further financial details aren’t being disclosed.

The new arrangement with Boehringer Ingelheim means that Forma has diversified with a roster of seven different deep-pocketed organizations that are putting their resources into Forma and its 100-person drug discovery crew. Forma last made news in June when it agreed to collaborate with Genentech on an experimental drug program to interfere with cancer cell metabolism. This new partnership will seek to build on Forma’s efforts to make drugs against molecular targets that have long been considered “undruggable” because they focus on protein/protein interactions. These are complex 3-D structures that are often known to play critical roles in disease processes, but they don’t usually have an obvious binding pocket that a small-molecule chemical compound can latch onto.

The wager is that Forma, through its team of biologists, chemists, and computational modelers, has found some promising new angles of attack against some of the classic cancer targets and some new ones that have promise, says Forma CEO Steven Tregay.

Still sounding like the organic chemist he was trained to be, Tregay is quick to admit that this isn’t totally obvious or some kind of easy thing to do.

Steven Tregay

“Protein/protein interactions are tough, you really need a partner that will go in with you and commit for four years and give it the good old-fashioned college try,” Tregay says. “We found a terrific partner in BI.”

Forma, founded in 2007 with a core group of scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, has been able to pull together a drug discovery team at precisely the moment when most biotech companies are looking to save money by cutting back on early-stage R&D and concentrate on later-stage clinical development of drug candidates that were discovered years ago. Forma has only raised $33 million in venture capital, but found a way to float a sizable R&D operation by relying on support from a network of partners like Novartis, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Eisai Pharmaceuticals, and Experimental Therapeutics Center of Singapore, as well as Genentech and now Boehringer Ingelheim.

By stitching together that support network, Forma has now got a drug discovery engine with the capability of running 30 different campaigns a year for high-throughput screening of new small-molecule drug candidates against targets of interest, Tregay says. That’s “about on par” with what many Big Pharma companies have for in-house capability of screening cancer drugs, he says.

While Forma has invested heavily in the early drug discovery efforts, that hasn’t left a whole lot of room for later-stage development capability. Although Forma plans to develop at least some of its own drug candidates in the future, it primarily operates these days as a discovery hothouse that pumps out molecules that partners will pick up and run with.

“We recognize where our strength is,” Tregay says.

Forma and Boehringer Ingelheim aren’t disclosing the names of some of the targets they will go after in this collaboration, although Tregay says the list includes some novel biological targets, as well as some “classic” targets that researchers have been seeking to block for years. For instance, targets like RAS and P53 are widely believed to play critical roles in cancer biology, yet no one has successfully been able to make drugs against them. Tregay wouldn’t say if those targets are part of the deal, but they would be considered “classic” targets.

Forma hasn’t worked with Boehringer Ingelheim before, but has spent years cultivating the relationship that led up to the new partnership, Tregay says. The German company, which says it has more than 40,000 employees, operates by a different set of rules than most Big Pharma companies, as it has remained privately held. That helps a company like Forma have some comfort that a four-year commitment means four years, which is no small thing in an industry where a lot of Big Pharma R&D budgets are getting cut.

“Without the pressure of being a public company, they (BI) seem to be very thoughtful about their strategy, and they identified protein/protein interactions as an area to invest heavily in. It’s a terrific fit for us,” Tregay says.

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