Novo Nordisk is already an obesity drug heavyweight with its blockbuster seller Wegovy, but its appetite for cardiometabolic drugs continues. The Danish pharmaceutical giant is satisfying that hunger by acquiring a startup with a novel approach to weight loss, marking its second acquisition agreement this month.
The latest buyout target is Embark Biotech. According to deal terms announced Wednesday, Novo Nordisk is paying €15 million (about $16.4 million) cash up front. Another €456 million (about $498 million) is tied to milestones.
Embark emerged in 2017, spinning out of the University of Copenhagen’s Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research. The startup was co-founded by Zach Gerhart-Hines, a professor at the university whose research focuses on adipose (fat) tissue biology.
Many of the drugs developed for obesity, including Wegovy, suppress appetite. Wegovy is a GLP-1 agonist, mimicking the GLP-1 hormone and prompting the body to produce more of the blood sugar-regulating hormone insulin. While GLP-1 agonists found their first uses as type 2 diabetes treatments, their weight loss effects made them attractive as obesity drugs.
Embark had previously said it discovered a novel target that not only suppresses weight loss, but also increases energy expenditure to burn calories. The target is not named in the Novo Nordisk announcement, but Gerhart-Hines’s university lab had made progress 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 as fuel.
In mice genetically engineered to overproduce GPR3 in adipose tissue, also called brown fat, the University of Copenhagen scientists found that the test animals were protected from metabolic disease. This protection persisted even as the mice continued to receive a high-calorie diet. The study results 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 target was started under an early collaboration with the pharma giant. The research continued with support from the InnoBooster program at the Innovation Fund Denmark and the BioInnovation Institute. Embark Biotech employees will stay on and work at a newly formed entity called Embark Laboratories, a Danish cardiometabolic disease biotech with a particular focus on therapies emphasizing energy expenditure. Gerhart-Hines is the chief technology officer of Embark Laboratories. Novo Nordisk has the option to acquire from Embark Laboratories selected assets based on Embark Biotech’s discoveries. Those drugs could be further developed in indications such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Novo Nordisk has been engaged in obesity research for 25 years, and we continuously search 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 about the opportunity to advance Embark Biotech’s lead program and look forward to co-creating novel treatments for cardiometabolic diseases with Embark Laboratories to complement our in-house R&D.”
The Embark acquisition gives Novo Nordisk a different approach to metabolic disorders than the one taken by Inversago, a startup whose acquisition agreement was announced three weeks ago. Clinical-stage Inversago is developing small molecules that block cannabinoid receptor type 1, or CB1, a receptor found in the central nervous system and the gastrointestinal system. Blocking this receptor can suppress appetite. If Inversago’s drug candidates achieve milestones, Novo Nordisk could end up paying its shareholders more than $1 billion.
Embark is not the only startup aiming to boost cellular energy expenditure as a way to lose weight. Nearly a year ago, Rivus Pharmaceuticals unveiled a $132 million Series B round of financing to support mid-stage clinical development of drugs it calls controlled metabolic accelerators. These small molecules target energy-producing components of cells called mitochondria, boosting their energy expenditure. The science of Charlottesville, Virginia-based Rivus comes from Gencia, a biotech focused on mitochondria-targeting drugs.
Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Scanpix Denmark/AFP, via Getty Images