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Third Rock’s biggest bet ever is on cancer drugs

With $40m, firm backs a start-up, Blueprint Medicines

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / April 11, 2011

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With interest in personalized medicine on the rise, the Boston venture capital firm Third Rock Ventures is set to disclose today that it is pumping $40 million — its biggest investment ever — into a new company that will develop targeted therapies for cancer.

It will be the largest early-stage funding round for a New England life sciences start-up since 2008, according to figures from the National Venture Capital Association, a trade group.

The company, Blueprint Medicines, has been operating in stealth mode for several months out of Third Rock’s offices in the Back Bay. But it will soon lease property near Kendall Square in Cambridge and plans to hire more than a dozen cell biologists, biochemists, and computational biologists this year to start creating a blueprint of cancers by identifying key drivers of malignant processes in cells.

Its scientific cofounders, Dr. Nicholas Lydon and Dr. Brian Druker, won the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in 2009 for their role in developing Gleevec, a kinase inhibitor sold by Novartis AG that fights chronic myeloid leukemia.

The goal of the new company is to apply fresh scientific understanding to produce a family of kinase inhibitors — drugs that can block the action of “switching points’’ that regulate cell processes and the proliferation of cancerous cells — to combat diseases ranging from melanomas and leukemias to lung and colon cancers.

“We’re beginning to understand a broad swath of different cancer mechanisms,’’ said Lydon, who will commute to Boston from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyo. “There are a lot of dark corners we still don’t understand. But we really think the time is right now to take a very broad, systematic approach to targeting these cancers.’’

Blueprint won’t be alone. A growing number of Boston-area research labs are pressing forward with targeted cancer-fighting drug programs, including Novartis, Sanofi-Aventis SA, Amgen Inc., and the Millennium division of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. But while the odds against any biotechnology start-up are formidable, Blueprint’s financial backer has assembled a blue-chip team with what it says is a novel approach.

Third Rock, founded in 2007 by Boston-area biotechnology veterans, manages about $800 million of investments exclusively in life sciences start-ups. The firm has spent the past three years working on a strategy for personalized oncology therapeutics, said partner Mark Levin, a former chief executive of Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge.

“This is an important company,’’ Levin said. “We think it could be a breakthrough company in driving personalized medicine.’’

Levin said the young personalized medicine field aims to find “the right drug for the right person at the right time.’’

To do that, he said, Blueprint will deploy new computational technology than can handle large-scale sequencing of genes to identify enzymes that can mutate. It will also seek to develop second-generation drugs to fight cancers that mutated to thwart first-generation kinase inhibitors, he said.

Leading the company will be chief executive Chris Varma and chief scientific officer David Armistead, both longtime biotechnology executives. Varma, who developed commercial strategies for personalized medicine at Millennium and Novartis, said Blueprint would pursue its research in-house while collaborating with Boston-area pharmaceutical and academic medical center scientists.

“What you’re starting to see emerging is a cancer genomics revolution,’’ Varma said. “You can now develop specific new therapies that can address the aberrant mechanisms of cancer cells.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.