Epizyme builds epigenetics lineup with $90M Celgene score

Epizyme has scored its richest pact yet, raking in $90 million in an upfront fee and equity payment from Celgene ($CELG) in return for an option to partner on the technology while gaining ex-U.S. rights to one of its key programs for genetically defined cancers. The pact includes a commitment to pay tens of millions more in milestones for any successful therapies that come out of the deal.

The partnership gives Celgene dibs on histone methyltransferases (HMT) inhibitors for a period of three years, with an option to extend that by a year. At the heart of the deal is DOT1L, a preclinical program that could play a role in a subtype of acute leukemias called mixed lineage leukemia (MLL). Epizyme will get a shot at up to $160 million in milestones--as well as double-digit royalties--on each program that pushes through the clinic.

Epizyme, a 2011 Fierce 15 company, has been making a reputation for itself in the hot epigenetics arena. Its technology promises to find small molecules that will bind to and control specific enzymes, helping orchestrate activity of a range of genes and proteins. Early in 2011 Epizyme made a name for itself with back-to-back development pacts with GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Eisai. And business development chief Jason Rhodes says this third commercial pact--Epizyme also has deals in place with two disease groups--was carefully tailored to provide the biotech with a fresh and substantial injection of cash while leaving it with U.S. rights and a joint governance approach to the partnership.

Epizyme's goal, says Rhodes, is to "build a new biopharma company and commercialize in the U.S. ourselves." And this new deal was designed to further those goals, bringing its total funds raised so far to $189 million, most of it in cash waiting to fund multiple programs. The new money will help finance the biotech's continuing growth. Rhodes says the fulltime staff has reached the mid-40s range, with around 90 contributing support work in facilities around the globe as part of its semi-virtual approach to development.

There's still no specific timeline available on when Epizyme plans to get its first program into the clinic. But they've set up one of the best collections of preclinical deals in the business. 

- here's the press release

Special Report: Epizyme - 2011 Fierce 15