UPDATED: Agios adds $78M C round to back cancer drug portfolio

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Celgene ($CELG) has joined forces with a group of venture groups and a few mystery investors to put a whopping $78 million C round together for Agios Pharmaceuticals, adding to a big cache of cash already banked by the early-stage developer. The money will get Agios into the clinic with a portfolio of cancer metabolism drugs, while funding the company's work on drugs for rare metabolic disorders.

Arch Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures and Third Rock Ventures--a familiar venture team in U.S. circles--all participated in the round, along with a group of unnamed "public investment funds." By bringing on public investors now, the biotech has taken a financing route that has led other drug developers such as Ironwood ($IRWD) to initial public offerings. "Agios is trying to build a company for the long term, so we want an investor base that can support us all the way into the future, including into the public marketplace," David Schenkein, the company's CEO, told FierceBiotech

Unlike many preclinical biotech companies, Agios--a 2009 Fierce 15 company--hasn't had trouble attracting cash. Last spring, the company grabbed $130 million upfront in a discovery deal with Celgene, which last month made an additional $20 million payment to Agios to extend its exclusive deal with Agios in the hot cancer metabolism field from three to four years. Including its $33 million Series A round and today's $78 million third-round financing, the company has announced more than a quarter of a billion dollars in funding.

Agios is targeting metabolic enzymes that are unique to rapidly proliferating cancer cells, believing its technology can "starve" the cancer. Thus far, the startup has disclosed its research of two cancer metabolism drug targets. For instance, the company has exposed the role of the mutated IDH1 gene in producing a metabolite that aids brain tumors known as gliomas. The Cambridge, MA-based developer has been honing its scientific skills in a number of areas, including biomarkers. The developer believes that it can identify biomarkers for its cancer work early on, helping to identify target groups most likely to benefit while opening a path to quick proof-of-concept data.

In the rare diseases space, Agios now has a whole new territory to explore with its expertise in disorderly metabolic functions. Schenkein says there are hundreds of diseases that involve a genetic abnormality that leads to the metabolic problems. The startup's 70-person team in Cambridge has most of the expertise required for research of drugs in this field, he said.   

Schenkein declined to provide details on the expected timing of the company's clinical trials or which drugs it will test in humans. Yet the funds now available to the company, he said, are enough to get its drugs against orphan diseases and cancers through proof-of-concept studies.

"[Agios'] clear leadership in cancer metabolism and expansion into orphan diseases provides a unique opportunity for leading long-term value and growth-oriented public investors to invest in a private company," Arch managing director Robert Nelsen, one of Agios' seed investors, said in a statement. "We believe [the company] will continue to create significant value for many years to come."

- here's the press release

Special Report: Agios Pharmaceuticals - 2009 Fierce 15

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