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Forma Therapeutics Targets Tumor Metabolism

The J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference is officially in full swing, and between presentations, I sat down with Steven Tregay, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Forma Therapeutics. It’s been two years (almost to the date) since Forma was spun out of technology developed by Broad Institute scientists Stuart L. Schreiber, Michael A. Foley, and Todd R. Golub, and a year since I profiled the company for the pages of our magazine (sub req’d).  Tregay outlined the progress Forma made in 2010, and some of its goals for this year, including picking drug candidates for preclinical studies in tumor metabolism.

As background, Forma’s drug discovery platform enables the development of molecules against previously intractable targets, such as protein-protein interactions and epigenetic targets. As we described last year, Forma’s discovery platform is comprised of three key technologies:

Diversity-oriented synthesis uses the efficiency of combinatorial synthesis to produce molecules with much of the complexity of natural products. The second technology is a family of structure-based drug discovery methods that includes large-scale crystallography and computational solvent mapping, a way of elucidating structural features on a protein that can help scientists design potential small-molecule drugs. Once Forma uses these two tools to design and synthesize compounds, the firm deploys the third technology, a cell-based screening method that allows the company to understand how the compounds will behave in the real world rather than in a test tube.

In November, Forma achieved its 2010 goal of sealing a big pharma deal. Eisai paid $20 million in an upfront fee and research funding to tap into Forma’s technology platform, and also took an option to bring the biotech’s cell-based screening platform in house down the road. The Eisai deal “was really validating,” Tregay says, as it was the first agreement to combine multiple Forma technologies into one package. Earlier deals were focused on one technology, often the diversity-oriented synthesis component.

This year is likely to bring more broad deals along with progress on Forma’s internal pipeline, which is focused on oncology. The first target is tumor metabolism, an approach that seeks to cut off cancer cell’s energy supply.

The target is a timely one. Last year brought a spate of discovery deals around cancer metabolism, including the high profile pact between Celgene and Agios. One of the major stumbling blocks to earlier attempt at targeting metabolism has been differentiating between healthy cells and tumor cells. But a deeper understanding of the underlying biology has made it possible to find reasonable cancer metabolism targets, Tregay notes.

Although Tregay couldn’t discuss the exact target Forma is working on, he did say rather it is unrelated to any known mutation that drives cancer. The company has been able to devise a biomarker and patient stratification strategy “with exquisitely high sensitivity,” that should translate into better and smaller clinical trials for its tumor metabolism compounds once they reach human testing. “We’re really excited to see how the genetics plays out,” he says.

Forma is now picking the final compounds for preclinical development, although Tregay notes that asking FDA for approval to test the drug in humans is a longer-term goal. Going forward, Tregay notes the company’s financial footing is sound between the Eisai deal, the $25.5 million in Series B funds it raised in late 2009, and revenues from collaborations with Cubist Pharmaceuticals, Novartis, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

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