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

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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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