Third Rock's Nurix inks a $150M immuno-oncology pact with Celgene

Nurix CEO Arthur Sands

Third Rock Ventures startup Nurix is lending its drug-development prowess to Celgene ($CELG) in exchange for $150 million up front and much more down the line, collaborating on potential treatments for cancer and immunology.

Under the deal, the partners will work on small-molecule treatments that target the body's ubiquitin proteasome system (UPS), a network of enzymes that regulate cell growth and death. By targeting ubiquitin, named for its prevalence throughout the body, Nurix believes it can modulate the production and degradation of proteins within cells, creating wide potential in oncology, inflammation and immunology.

Now Celgene is buying in, paying Nurix $150 million up front plus an undisclosed equity investment for the right to license some of its UPS-focused projects. Through the agreement, Celgene can pick up worldwide rights to certain Nurix programs by paying an option fee and milestone payments totaling up to $405 million each, plus royalties on future sales. On other projects, Nurix is retaining some U.S. rights, giving Celgene the opportunity to split development costs in exchange for a half the stateside profits and all of the proceeds from other countries.

The terms of the deal give Nurix a long leash on early R&D, allowing the company to control all discovery and development through the end of Phase I before looping in its new partner.

"With a shared vision to create a new class of drugs that work by selectively modulating cellular protein levels, we have designed a transformative collaboration that empowers Nurix to move its pipeline from discovery through development and commercialization," Nurix CEO Arthur Sands said in statement.

The deal structure is similar to Celgene's long-running collaboration with Agios Pharmaceuticals ($AGIO), through which the Big Biotech is in-licensing cancer candidates one at a time and sharing the cost of development. Celgene is widely known as the industry's most prolific dealmaker, but the New Jersey company has also differentiated itself by entering into partnerships that don't resemble traditional biopharma tie-ups, often giving its partners large upfront payments or uncommon freedom in development.

For Nurix, the San Francisco company is a little more than a year removed from its launch, setting out in 2014 with $25 million from Third Rock and the Column Group to build a portfolio of small-molecule drugs. Following Third Rock's oft-repeated model, the company's bedrock asset is its UPS discovery platform, and Nurix has assembled a cast of subject-matter experts to pave the way forward with its protein-modulating candidates. Sands, the former CEO of Lexicon Pharmaceuticals ($LXRX), took the reins in September.

- read the statement