Scoop: Deerfield and Dana-Farber forge closer ties to launch a new translational cancer research engine

A little over two years since first teaming up on protein degradation, Deerfield and Dana-Farber are putting their heads — and their wallets — together again. The pair is forming a new partnership in the form of Riverway Discoveries, a translational research engine aiming to boost efforts at getting preclinical cancer work into human studies. Deerfield is putting up $130 million over the next 10 years to advance such endeavors, after funding the protein degradation effort for $80 million in late 2018.

This new agreement is the first time Deerfield has returned to one of its academic collaborators to launch a second such outfit, and it evolved somewhat naturally out of the first, managing partner James Flynn told endpoints News. “We’ve been developing an increasingly close relationship with a number of researchers at Dana-Farber,” Flynn said. “We talked about, ‘Well, shouldn’t we try to figure out a way to expand this to other things that are going on at Dana-Farber?’ And that’s what this agreement is.”

Here’s how Riverway is planning to operate: Individuals or groups of researchers at Dana-Farber will be able to submit proposals for turning their discovery work into drugs. An investigator at the institute will then take the proposal to a team of scientists at Deerfield, who will assess its therapeutic potential. Finally, a “steering committee” composed of three people each from both Deerfield and Dana-Farber will vote to fund the project.

Once that happens, the research could be spun out into its own company — or it could be managed by a third party, Flynn said. Nothing is really set in stone once the translational phase is completed, as researchers are seeking to be as flexible as possible with their strategies.

“It’s sort of in the ether. We will do that work where that work is best done, and some of it is best done at Dana-Farber,” Flynn said. “But the actual thing itself kind of lives in the ether until we have proved it out, and once we decide that it is really gonna make it, we’ll spin it out into a company.”

Submissions will begin in earnest later this month, though Flynn said they already have their eyes on a couple projects. Deerfield isn’t revealing any of the specifics just yet, but Flynn noted they’re looking at cancer broadly and where new drugs could make the most impact.

It’s another in a long line of partnerships and new funds for Dana-Farber, which continues to see heavy industry demand for its research. Just a few weeks ago, the institute launched a venture fund to invest in startups that have launched with IP or leadership sourced from the nonprofit’s ranks.

The close timing of these two announcements was purely coincidental, Dana-Farber COO William Hahn said. Monday’s launch of Riverway had actually been in the works for a while, given how much both sides enjoyed working together on the protein degradation partnership.

Hahn added the ultimate goal for Riverway is to fill the space where preclinical work can sometimes get lost if there’s not a proper plan in place to take it forward. Organizationally, Dana-Farber and Deerfield are already quite close, and so returning to the firm proved an easy fit.

“It’s a much harder area to try to do research in and move it forward, but it’s critical to determine if something has the possibility and the scientific underpinnings to make it,” Hahn said. “It allows investigators to work with Deerfield to really ask the question, ‘Is the discovery robust enough?’”