Here's Why Celgene Boosted Its Bet on Forma Therapeutics

Celgene  (NASDAQ: CELG  )  is one of the most prolific dealmakers in the biotech industry. It's increasingly building out a pre-clinical pipeline that is tightly tied to therapies targeting enzymes, proteins, and their inter-relationships.

The company's latest move is to cozy up to Forma Therapeutics, a six-year-old Massachusetts biotechnology company that's building one of the most robust drug discovery engines in the industry.

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Who is Forma Therapeuticas?
Former Novartis (NYSE: NVS  ) dealmaker Steven Tregay and three members of the Broad Institute launched Forma Therapeutics in 2008. Their goal was -- and remains -- simple: to leverage the latest advances in genetic, chemical, and analytic insight to discover and develop drugs more quickly.

Accomplishing that goal, however, is likely to be anything but simple. For Forma to succeed, it needs to toss aside decades of deeply ingrained R&D practice and process, and embrace systems that can evaluate disease targets in parallel.

That complexity is one of the reasons a variety of industry heavyweights have linked up with Forma rather than tear down and reimagine their own R&D departments.

The equity investment arms of Novartis and Eli Lilly were among Forma's earliest backers, and financing from Novartis, Lilly (NYSE: LLY  ) , Cubist, and Roche's (NASDAQOTH: RHHBY  ) Genentech has helped Forma build a substantial R&D team focused on tumor metabolism, epigenetics, protein homeostasis, and protein-to-protein interactions. Those are all emerging -- and mostly commercially unproven -- areas of research.

In addition to seed money, Novartis struck a deal with Forma to develop a protein-to-protein interaction-based cancer drug. Anti-viral leader Cubist and Japanese drugmaker Eisai have also provided upfront cash tied to collaboration deals.

Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ  )  teamed up with Forma in 2012 to develop tumor metabolism therapies in a deal that could eventually be worth up to $700 million to Forma, and Boehringer could pay Forma up to $750 million in potential milestones if its collaboration works out as hoped. Roche's Genentech has nabbed exclusive global rights to a Forma pre-clinical drug that starves tumors by blocking cancer cell metabolism, too.

Why is Celgene interested?
Celgene has been spending big money on collaborations with epigenetics-focused emerging biotechnology companies. Those companies are studying why cells can look similar yet behave differently -- in the process causing or contributing to a variety of cancer and autoimmune disease.

Those are important markets for Celgene, given that it markets the highly successful blockbuster myeloma drug Revlimid, and the recently approved psoriatic arthritis drug Otezla.

Celgene first agreed to collaborate with Forma last April on protein homeostasis cancer targets. That's an intriguing area for research, since disruptions in normal cell function, such as protein folding and degradation, may be tied to cancer. As part of that agreement, Celgene agreed to pay Forma up to $200 million, including upfront money and milestones.

Celgene is apparently happy with the early results. The deal with Forma this week is much larger and cuts across a wider range of disease targets. Overall, the agreement could be worth up to $600 million for Forma, including a $225 million upfront payment and potential milestones. Celgene also agreed to pay mid- and late-stage development costs. Additionally, the deal includes a provision that would allow Celgene to acquire Forma under certain circumstances.

Fool-worthy final thoughts
Celgene's collaborations -- this one included -- are primarily with companies offering pre-clinical ideas, rather than in-clinic compounds.

That means all of Forma's partners, including Novartis, Lilly, Roche, Johnson, and Celgene, will have to wait years before learning if their collaborations with Forma pay off. In the meantime, however, each gets access to a promising new approach to drug discovery in exchange for upfront payments that are relatively small compared with what it would cost to build such programs in-house. In that respect, Celgene appears to have an attractive call option on Forma. 

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