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Good 'Forma': New Deal Adds Celgene to Partnership Roster

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By Jennifer Boggs
Managing Editor

Drug discovery firm Forma Therapeutics Holdings LLC racked up another collaboration – its biggest so far – inking Celgene Corp. to a potential multicandidate deal targeting protein homeostasis, a new area of biology linked to oncology, neurodegenerative disorders and other diseases.

Specific up-front payments were not disclosed, but Summit, N.J.-based Celgene agreed to fund up to $200 million for research and early development work based on "certain scientific criteria," said Steven Tregay, president and CEO of Forma, which will handle early screening through Phase I.

To that end, the firm will tap into its 2012 agreement with drug development facilitator TGen Drug Development (TD2), a subsidiary of Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, in which it gained access to range of preclinical tools and clinical design strategies, as well as the expertise of leading clinicians such as Daniel Von Hoff, who has a knack for "really getting at genetically defined cancers." Tregay said.

At the conclusion of Phase I, Celgene will have the option to take over further work, shouldering the cost of global development, though Forma retains U.S. rights to any compound emerging from the deal. There would follow the "traditional bio-dollars" for Forma, for development, regulatory and sales milestones, with up to $315 million in potential payments for the first license "ramping up to $430 million" for each subsequent license, he added.

And holding on to U.S. rights will "provide Forma the opportunity to grow up as a company," Tregay told BioWorld Today.

Forma also would earn royalties on ex-U.S. sales and be eligible for additional sales and other payments if multiple candidates hit cumulative sales objectives.

"This is really an evolution of all of our deals," he said of the Celgene pact. Founded in 2008, Forma's partnering flurry began with a straight-up technology licensing deal with Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. in January 2009. Last year, the company inked two big pharma agreements in 2012: a potential $815 million deal with Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH and a potential $700 million partnership with Johnson & Johnson unit Janssen. (See BioWorld Today, Jan. 6, 2012, and Jan. 10, 2012.)

It also brings to bear the full capability of the discovery and screening technologies Forma has worked to integrate since its founding, Tregay noted. In addition to its deal with TD2, Forma gained a computational and fragment-based drug design technology via its 2008 buyout of SolMap Pharmaceuticals. Last year, Forma opened a new facility in Watertown to house high-throughput screening, computational and medicinal chemistry and biology teams.

"We're screening more than 30 targets a year," he added.

That broad effort has led to work in tumor metastasis (the subject of the Janssen deal), protein-protein interaction (the Boehringer Ingelheim deal), a tumor-starving program partnered with South San Francisco-based Genentech Inc., a partnership with Eisai Inc., of Woodcliff Lake, N.J., aimed at difficult-to-target cancer pathways, and now a deal in protein homeostasis.

"It's a fascinating area of biology," Tregay said of protein homeostasis, which basically refers to the controlling of various protein levels in cells.

For instance, protein levels can be managed by degradation mediated by the ubiquitin system. Already a number of deubiquitinating enzymes (DUBs) are known to be linked to cancer, with cancer cells "using the mechanism to maintain protein levels unnaturally in cells." But DUBs also are "very essential to a lot of other diseases," Tregay added. "They could become the next kinome."

It's still early science, but Celgene's substantial investment "will allow us to really deliver."

To date, Forma's collaboration revenue is more than triple its venture capital. Tregay said the firm has raised just a little more than $40 million from VCs, but it's expected nondilutive revenue should total about $165 million by the end of this year. And more partnerships could follow. The latest deal "brings us to about 50 percent of [Forma's] capacity."

The biotech also took a step to increase its options for partnering deals, restructuring as a limited liability corporation (LLC), a move that also helps provide liquidity to shareholders, Tregay said. "We want to be flexible," he said. The Celgene deal, for example, is a case where U.S. rights offers "long-term intrinsic value. But in other cases, we may want to partner off an asset."

That was the case when Forma inked its 2011 deal with Roche unit Genentech. Instead of sharing in a future royalty stream, Forma opted to give Genentech a chance to acquire the small-molecule program targeting cancer. (See BioWorld Today, June 28, 2011.)

Forma also is advancing an internal pipeline, having moved about a half-dozen programs into lead optimization over the past year. The first clinical programs are expected in 2015.