Agios Pharmaceuticals has made some noise coming out of the holiday weekend. The Boston-area company, a developer of new drugs that starve cancer cells of essential nutrients, has snagged $33 million in an initial round of venture capital from Third Rock Ventures, Flagship Ventures, and Arch Venture Partners.
Agios plans to take advantage of new science, featured in Nature in March, that says cancer cells become addicted to food. More specifically, they have highly active metabolic enzymes, like those in fetal cells, that spur faster-than-normal growth. The company is working on a pipeline of drugs designed to block that high-speed metabolism, the company said.
“If you think of an embryo that can go from a few cells to seven to nine pounds in a few months, it’s a disproportionate appetite for nutrients that allows it to grow,” said Kevin Starr, interim CEO of Agios and a partner with Third Rock Ventures in Boston. “Our team has found a similar pattern with tumor cells, where a disproportionate appetite for nutrients allows them to grow uncontrollably.”
Agios’ founders include Lewis Cantley of Harvard Medical School, Tak Mak of the University of Toronto, and Craig Thompson of the University of Pennsylvania. The trio will keep their academic affiliations, yet remain “closely involved” with the company, Starr says.
For now, Agios has just a few employees and consultants working from Third Rock’s Newbury Street offices in Boston. It plans to find lab space in neighboring Cambridge within a few months, to build a staff of up to 20 to 25 people within a year, and to grow it to 30 to 35 within two years, Starr said.
The company is working on conventional small-molecule drugs that block enzymes highly active in tumor metabolism, Starr says. While that work is going on targeting specific enzymes, which aren’t being disclosed, Agios will work on identifying new targets for next-generation treatments, he said. The first experimental drugs should be ready for clinical trials in a couple years, Starr says.
The idea of starving tumors has been around for decades, championed by the late Judah Folkman of Children’s Hospital in Boston, who pioneered the method of battling cancer by cutting off its blood supply. That approach has yielded several new drugs, including Genentech’s Avastin, one of the world’s best-selling cancer medicines, with $2.3 billion in U.S. sales in 2007.
Agios’ treatments will seek to block tumors’ supply of sugars and fats, as well as a mechanism cells use to feed off their own components for a quick energy boost when under stress, Starr says. It’s possible that Agios’ drugs could initially be used in combination with those that block blood flow to tumors, and later be used on their own, he says.
“We’ve looked at a lot of companies, and it’s rare when the biology comes together like this,” Starr says. “This isn’t another me-too company. We think this is a very disruptive approach to cancer and an important approach for patients.”