Celgene taps biotech Forma for drugs in hot field of protein homeostasis

Forma Therapeutics has locked in another biopharma partner. The biotech giant Celgene ($CELG) and Forma have agreed to a broad collaboration in the field of protein homeostasis, which involves quality-control pathways in cells that play roles in cancer, neurodegenerative disorders and other diseases.

Celgene has agreed to hand Forma (a 2011 Fierce 15 company) an undisclosed upfront payment and research and early development milestones of $200 million. Under the deal, Watertown, MA-based Forma will use an internal drug-discovery platform to hunt for compounds against protein homeostasis targets.

Protein homeostasis has been an area of intense interest among biopharma companies for years, and the field has already yielded treatments such as Takeda's blood cancer therapy Velcade, a drug in a class known as proteasome inhibitors. Yet the area offers a host of other genes and pathways, which give Forma and other newer entrants in the field opportunities to discover drugs for a range of illnesses.

Forma CEO Steven Tregay has taken pride in his company's capacity to conduct drug discovery on a scale that beats other biotech shops and rivals larger pharma operations. His company has sealed prior discovery deals with Johnson & Johnson's ($JNJ) Janssen in cancer metabolism and Boehringer Ingelheim for protein-to-protein targets. Its previous deals have also included Roche's ($RHHBY) Genentech, Cubist Pharmaceuticals ($CBST), Eisai and others.

With the Celgene pact, Forma faces a new test of showing how well the company can complete early-stage human trials. Under the agreement, Forma is responsible for developing drugs discovered in partnership through Phase I studies, Tregay said. Forma keeps control of U.S. rights to the products in the collaboration with Celgene, which has agreed to pay milestones of up to $315 million for the first potential license and $430 million in milestones for subsequent licenses.

Just one successful product from the deal could elevate the financial rewards for Forma beyond $500 million.

Steven Tregay

"This [Celgene pact] is by far our largest deal to date," Tregay told FierceBiotech in an interview. "It's one of the broadest deals that Celgene has ever entered into, so we're excited about that."

To help gain early clinical validation, Forma plans to work with the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute's Translational Drug Development unit, which specializes in moving programs from the preclinical stage to early clinical development.

"This deal will really give us the wherewithal across multiple programs to bring programs forward clinically," Tregay said, "and that's a really exciting step for us as a company."

Forma, launched in 2008, has raised about $40 million in venture capital and by the end of this year will have collected $165 million in non-dilutive partnership dollars, according to Tregay. The company struck the Celgene deal after other biotech outfits such as Cleave Biosciences, Proteostasis Therapeutics and others entered the field of protein homeostasis.

"This collaboration with FORMA is consistent with our corporate R&D strategy, engaging in large collaborations with leading companies working in emerging areas of biology," said George Golumbeski, Celgene's senior vice president for business development, in a statement.

In the field of cancer metabolism, Celgene has a broad biotech collaboration with Cambridge, MA-based Agios Pharmaceuticals.

- here's Forma's release

Special Report: Forma Therapeutics - 2011 Fierce 15