Foundation Medicine Teams With Celgene in Quest to Develop Targeted Cancer Treatments

5/17/11Follow @arleneweintraub

Boston-based Foundation Medicine has only been around for about two years, but it’s already making friends in big places. Today the company—which is developing advanced cancer diagnostics—announced a collaboration with Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG), based in Summit, NJ. Celgene plans to use Foundation Medicine’s genomics testing technology in trials of cancer drugs, in the hopes of identifying patients who are most likely to respond well to the medicines. The deal comes just four months after Foundation Medicine announced a collaboration with Novartis (NYSE: NVS) to optimize a genome panel for use in cancer research.

The financial details of the Celgene and Novartis deals were not announced, but the big-name backing is vital to Foundation, says Michael Pellini, a diagnostics-industry veteran who joined the startup as CEO on May 12. “These are two fantastic partners to have at this stage, because they bring tremendous insight into cancer biology and drug development,” Pellini says. “They will help us refine our tests.”

Foundation Medicine is built around the increasingly popular idea that cancer treatments should be tailored to individual patients. Foundation’s technology, which it’s currently marketing to pharmaceutical companies, uses high-throughput DNA sequencing to analyze tumors for alterations in more than 200 cancer-related genes. Pellini expects that number to reach 300 “in the coming months.”

Even before the Celgene and Novartis deals, Foundation Medicine’s pedigree had helped it win over some important allies. Boston-based Third Rock Ventures—which was founded by veterans from Millennium Pharmaceuticals—incubated Foundation and led its $25 million series A in April 2010. The company’s founding academic advisors hail from the Broad Institute, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And former CombinatoRx CEO Alexis Borisy served as its founding chief executive.

The recruiting of Pellini was a coup for Foundation Medicine, as well. Pellini was formerly the president and chief operating officer of Clarient, a leading developer of cancer diagnostics that was acquired by General Electric (NYSE: GE) in 2010. His previous experience included stints at Safeguard Scientifics (NYSE: SFE) and Genomics Collaborative.

Pellini says he was attracted to the Foundation opportunity because he believed the startup was forward-thinking in its approach to diagnostics. The company’s technology is fluid—meaning it can be easily refined as the understanding of tumor biology evolves. “This test is not a static offering. As our knowledge changes, we will continue to refine it,” Pellini says. “What Foundation is doing is the next generation of cancer diagnostics. It’s a taste of things to come in our industry.”

Foundation Medicine is working quickly to bring its technology into mainstream medical practice. Next year, the company plans to market a test that will help physicians determine the best treatments and clinical trial options for each patient, based on his or her cancer’s unique genetic blueprint. The knowledge the company amasses about alterations in cancer genes will be reported on an interactive Web site, which customers can use to locate trials for their patients and stay on top of the latest developments in oncology treatment. Says Pellini: “Our objective is to touch the lives of all cancer patients starting in 2012.”

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