Abbott aids biotech Epizyme in matching epigenetic drug with cancer patients

Abbott ($ABT) plans to develop a companion diagnostic test for an experimental leukemia drug from the biotech startup Epizyme. The agreement follows the start of a Phase I study of the compound, EPZ-5676, for which biotech giant Celgene ($CELG) has partnered with the startup for development outside the U.S.

In September, Cambridge, MA-based Epizyme began an initial clinical trial of the compound, which aims to block the DOTIL histone methyltransferase to treat patients with a subtype of acute leukemias called mixed lineage leukemia (MLL). In adults with the MLL subtype of acute myeloid leukemia, according to Epizyme, only 5% to 24% of adult patients survive 5 years. And to identify genetically qualified patients, Abbott is going to develop a FISH test that hones in on MLL genetic alterations. This will help Epizyme match its drug with the right patients as development continues.

Epizyme, a 2011 Fierce 15 company, has a lot riding on EPZ-5676, which is the most advanced compound in the young company's pipeline and the centerpiece of its marquee partnership with Celgene. Last April Celgene forked over $90 million upfront to partner with Epizyme on the candidate and other compounds against HMT targets. As with most such pacts, Celgene will pay the bulk of potential money to Epizyme based on success in clinical trials and beyond.

Venture investors and pharma players have pumped more than $180 million into Epizyme's mission to discover and develop drugs that target epigenetic enzymes, which play roles in orchestrating gene expression that drives tumor growth. The company has brought in about $120 million in partnership income from GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), Eisai and more recently Celgene.

Celgene has shown a willingness to bet heavily on biotech startups that the company deems to be pioneering in specific areas of cancer drug research. The drugmakers also has expansive alliance with Agios Pharmaceuticals focused on cancer metabolism drugs. And there's surely more to come.

- here's the release

Special Report: Epizyme - 2011 Fierce 15