UPDATED: Agios wins $20M haul as Celgene extends cancer development pact

It didn't take long for Cambridge, MA-based Agios Pharmaceuticals to win a rep in the drug development field. Launched in 2008 with $33 million from a trio of venture groups with a well-known taste for start-ups, Agios recruited Genentech's senior cancer drug development exec as the new CEO in 2009 and followed up with a hefty $130 million-upfront deal with Celgene to partner on its new approach to killing tumors. This morning Celgene followed up by opting for an early extension of their promising development deal, adding $20 million to Agios' haul from that single deal as Celgene adds a fourth year to their collaboration.

Agios started out focused on three key pathways involved in cancer metabolism. The essential idea is that new treatments that interfere with the enzymes involved in the metabolic pathways could cripple the key drivers of the disease. And while the biotech started on the cancer front, Agios believes the technology can also work on inflammatory, neurological and autoimmune conditions as well.

The deal extension with Celgene comes just a little more than a year since the two companies joined hands. Dr. Thomas Daniel, Celgene's president of research, told Reuters that Celgene is pursuing several enzyme targets, with a particular interest in IDH1. "IDH1 is an enzyme that's important in metabolizing glucose, and mutant forms generate an unusual metabolic side product which accumulates in very high levels in cancer patients," Daniel told the wire service.

"They knew I think from the beginning that this was likely to be a longer term relationship," Agios CEO David Schenkein tells FierceBiotech. Tacking an extension on their deal now helps demonstrate that Celgene is comfortable with the relationship, he adds. It also helps underscore Celgene's commitment to their approach on cancer metabolism. Schenkein added that Agios has built up a staff of 65, relatively large compared to many other fledgling biotechs at this stage of the game.

"We're going after a new area of biology," says the CEO. "And we're going after it hard." And while there's no specific timeline for moving from the preclinical stage into the clinic, Schenkein says that Agios plans to have "multiple first-in-class molecules" in the clinic over the next 24 months.

A key focus for the research team is finding biomarkers that can be used to identify the specific patient populations which stand to benefit from these new treatments. And the biotech is pushing beyond cancer to explore how altering metabolism can work for other diseases, which will help position it for future partnerships.

Flagship Ventures and Arch Venture Partners launched Agios, with Third Rock joining later on the Series A. Third Rock's Kevin Starr acted as interim CEO until Schenkein was recruited from Genentech.

- see the Agios release
- here's the Reuters story