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access to one of the most prolific small-molecule drug discovery teams in the industry, even when including Big Pharma giants with deep pockets. Forma has struck previous partnerships with Genentech, Boehringer Ingelheim, Johnson & Johnson, and Eisai Pharmaceuticals to provide those organizations with different drug candidates designed to interact with a variety of new drug targets, most of which aren’t being disclosed for competitive reasons.
Protein homeostasis is an emerging area of biology that Forma only sought to pursue about six months ago, Tregay says. This field is concerned with how complex networks of proteins get perturbed, and lead to errors in protein folding, transport, or the way they get disposed of in the usual cellular machinery. Cancer and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s are a couple areas that biologists think might be treatable through drugs that seek to restore protein homeostasis. A few other companies have been zeroed in on this field for years, including Cambridge, MA-based Proteostasis Therapeutics, Burlingame, CA-based Cleave Biosciences, FoldRx Pharmaceuticals (now part of Pfizer), and Millennium: The Takeda Oncology Company.
What Forma thinks it can add to the mix is an ace medicinal chemistry team that can make lots of drug candidates that can bind with some of the emerging targets in protein homeostasis biology, and tweak them any which way is needed to make them optimal as drug candidates.
If Forma is successful in this endeavor, it will be richly rewarded under the deal with Celgene. Forma will get the full $200 million if it can advance “multiple drug candidates” through the first phase of clinical trials, which normally assess safety and tolerability of drug candidates in a variety of doses. Forma will do this work in collaboration with TGen Drug Development (TD2) in Scottsdale, AZ, the clinical trial group led by Daniel Von Hoff, a respected physician-scientist who has been involved in dozens of successful cancer drug trials. Once a drug passes Phase I trials, it becomes Celgene’s job to run the middle and late-stage trials necessary for regulatory approvals.
Now here’s where the imaginary “biobucks” enter the picture. If drug candidates from Forma hit all their clinical trial, regulatory and sales goals—an unlikely possibility—then Forma could collect up to $315 million in payments on the first drug licensed by Celgene, plus royalties. Each set of “biobuck” incentives gets larger for the next drug candidates to pop out of Forma’s discovery engine, until reaching a maximum of $430 million in milestone payments per drug program.
The structure of the deal doesn’t follow a lot of typical templates between small biotechs and big companies, but the unorthodox nature of the partnership is in keeping with Celgene’s style of crafting different deals for different situations—like with some of the other biotech partners listed above.
“We are enthusiastic about the very innovative scientific and business structure approach this collaboration represents. Forma’s unique drug discovery platform and disruptive approach to discovery of high impact therapies offers a valuable complement to our overall strategy,” said Tom Daniel, the president of global research and early development at Celgene, in a statement.
It’s still too early to say when the Forma discovery team might be able to put some of its drug candidates into clinical trials, much less whether any of them will ever help patients or make a dime of revenue. But Tregay says his team is gaining speed and efficiency as it scales up, and he’s betting that he can produce high-quality candidates for clinical trials in half the usual time. If Tregay and his team can hit those goals, he says, he’s confident in the folks who will take the handoff for the less risky, but more expensive phases of middle and late-stage clinical development.
“Celgene really truly treats partnerships as an essential part of building their pipeline,” Tregay says. “They have an amazing clinical success rate, and success with growing the assets they have. But they truly appreciate that these partnerships with small companies aren’t just an add-on. That’s why they are such a good partner. They need this partnership to work as part of their growth plan. They aren’t looking at this as an afterthought, or something that fills in the missing piece in their pipeline. They view it as a strategic activity.”
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