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Genentech And Constellation Forge Epigenetics Agreement

by Lisa M. Jarvis
January 23, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 4

Genentech and the Cambridge, Mass.-based start-up Constellation Pharmaceuticals have inked a broad pact to develop cancer drugs based on epigenetic targets. Genentech will shell out $95 million to cover an upfront fee and three years of research funding. The biotech giant also has an option to acquire Constellation down the road.

Epigenetic processes dictate how genes are expressed by adding, removing, or interpreting chemical modifications to chromatin, the compact structure within a cell’s nucleus that includes DNA and proteins called histones. The alterations to chromatin are made without compromising the underlying DNA.

Under the agreement, Genentech and Constellation have committed to exclusively work with one another in the field of epigenetics, allowing scientists to openly share data and explore multiple targets, says Constellation CEO Mark A. Goldsmith. The deal’s structure was enabled, he says, by Constellation’s agnostic approach to drug development: Whereas some epigenetics companies are focused on modulating one protein target or developing one class of compounds, Constellation has taken a broader approach so it can adapt as knowledge about epigenetic targets evolves.

The pact underscores growing interest from investors and big pharma in small companies with expertise in the burgeoning field of epigenetics.

In the past year, fellow Cambridge-based epigenetics firm Epizyme has forged drug development deals with GlaxoSmithKline and Eisai, while Constellation, CellCentric, and Acetylon Pharmaceuticals all secured significant rounds of funding despite a tough financing climate for biotechs. And last week, GSK opted to take in-house an epigenetics program it had with SuperGen, which recently merged with Astex Therapeutics.


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