Novo Nordisk is already an obesity drug giant with its blockbuster Wegovy, but its appetite for cardiometabolic drugs continues. The Danish pharmaceutical giant is satisfying that hunger by acquiring a startup with a new approach to weight loss, sealing its second acquisition deal this month.
The latest acquisition target is Embark Biotech. Under the terms of the deal announced Wednesday, Novo Nordisk will pay 15 million (about $16.4 million) in cash up front. Another 456 million (about $498 million) is tied to major milestones.
Embark was born in 2017, as an outgrowth of the Center for Basic Metabolic Research of the Novo Nordisk Foundation at the University of Copenhagen. The startup was co-founded by Zach Gerhart-Hines, a professor at the university whose research focuses on the biology of adipose (fat) tissue.
Many of the drugs being developed for obesity, including Wegovy, suppress the appetite. Wegovy is a GLP-1 agonist, which mimics the hormone GLP-1 and causes the body to produce more insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar. Although GLP-1 agonists found their first use as treatments for type 2 diabetes, their effects on weight loss have made them attractive as anti-obesity drugs.
Embark had previously claimed to have discovered a new lens that not only suppresses appetite but also increases energy expenditure to burn calories. The target isn’t mentioned in the Novo Nordisk announcement, but the Gerhart-Hiness University lab has made progress in researching G protein-coupled receptor 3, or GPR3. This receptor drives thermogenesis, which is another way of saying heat production. In thermogenesis, fat cells take glucose and fatty acids from the blood and burn them for fuel.
In mice genetically modified to produce excessive amounts of GPR3 in adipose tissue, also called brown fat, scientists at the University of Copenhagen found that the test animals were protected against metabolic diseases. This protection continued even as the mice continued to receive a high-calorie diet. The results of the study were published in 2021 in the journal Cell. The research was funded by the European Research Council, the Independent Research Fund of Denmark and the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
Novo Nordisk says Embark’s development of its lens began with an initial collaboration with the pharmaceutical giant. Research continued with support from the InnoBooster program at the Innovation Fund Denmark and the BioInnovation Institute. Embark Biotech employees will remain and work at a new entity called Embark Laboratories, a Danish biotechnology dedicated to cardiometabolic diseases with a particular focus on therapies that emphasize energy expenditure. Gerhart-Hines is the Chief Technology Officer of Embark Laboratories. Novo Nordisk has the ability to acquire selected assets from Embark Laboratories based on Embark Biotech discoveries. These drugs could be further developed for indications such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Novo Nordisk has been engaged in obesity research for 25 years, and we are continually looking for new ways to address this serious, chronic disease, Brian Finan, vice president of obesity research at Novo Nordisk, said in a prepared statement. We are excited by the opportunity to advance Embark Biotech’s core program and look forward to co-creating new treatments for cardiometabolic diseases with Embark Laboratories to complement our internal research and development.
The acquisition of Embark gives Novo Nordisk a different approach to metabolic disorders than that taken by Inversago, a startup whose acquisition agreement was announced three weeks ago. Inversago is clinically developing small molecules that block the cannabinoid receptor type 1, or CB1, a receptor found in the central nervous system and gastrointestinal system. Blockade of this receptor can suppress your appetite. If Inversagos’ drug candidates hit major milestones, Novo Nordisk could end up paying its shareholders more than $1 billion.
Embark isn’t the only startup aiming to increase cellular energy expenditure as a way to lose weight. Nearly a year ago, Rivus Pharmaceuticals filed a $132 million Series B funding round to support mid-stage clinical development of drugs it calls controlled metabolic accelerators. These small molecules target energy-producing components of cells called mitochondria, increasing their energy expenditure. The science at Rivus, headquartered in Charlottesville, Va., comes from Gencia, a biotechnology focused on mitochondria-targeting drugs.
Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix Denmark/AFP, via Getty Images
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