Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Novo Nordisk Will Also Pursue Autoimmunity Drugs

Back in November 2007, I featured a post in which I said that there were signs that pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company was reconsidering the company's type 1 diabetes strategy, particularly given their partnership with MacroGenics, Inc. to develop and commercialize teplizumab, which is a humanized anti-CD3 monoclonal antibody. In effect, that biotechnology medicine could address a persistent problem in people with type 1 diabetes which few drug companies have really pursued ... until recently. We know the body continues to make new insulin-producing beta cells even in longstanding people with type 1 diabetes, but the darn immune system keeps destroying them. At present, there is no company who makes a similar product, although research has shown positive results in clinical trials (think of the work done by UCSF's Jeffrey Bluestone as one such example, or the JDRF-funded clinical trials using monoclonal antibodies in Europe as another). Presently, making monoclonal antibodies is a very laborious process which is done by researchers by hand, and while it is arguably effective, the fact that no one makes them commercially means they're largely out-of-reach for many people who could potentially benefit from such a treatment.

Interestingly, this morning's Seattle Post-Intelligencer featured an interesting story that Lilly's arch rival, Novo Nordisk A/S was opening a research site in the Seattle area. So what. After all, Novo has scientists working all over the place and has recently built an insulin factory in North Carolina, too. The Seattle P-I story by itself wouldn't be much to report unless you live in the area, but what was most interesting about that short article was the following statement (I'll include the full article at the bottom so it remains available down the road):

"By 2010, Novo Nordisk plans to have 80 employees at its Seattle operations, which will identify drug targets for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases." They also noted that Novo Nordisk's Seattle operations will be headed by a man named Don Foster, formerly a vice president of research at ZymoGenetics.

Note that these researchers will not (necessarily) be looking at ways to "improve" insulin therapy as one might expect from the world's largest insulin maker, but they're targeting treatments for autoimmune diseases and drug targets for inflammation. That's a powerful statement, namely that if Novo thinks Lilly might market something that stops recurring autoimmunity, then Novo thinks they need to play in the same sandbox. There is a long history of rivalry between these companies, and its interesting how quickly Novolog (insulin aspart rDNA origin) emerged after Humalog -- the worlds first insulin analog -- was introduced.

In recent years, Lilly has lost focus on the type 1 diabetes market which helped to fund many the company's blockbusters (and former blockbusters) such as Prozac and Zyprexa (therapeutics for completely unrelated ailments, but nevertheless, were both $1+ billion/year blockbuster drugs). As a result, Lilly has become second-fiddle in a market they once commanded 85% of as recently as a decade ago. I wrote an open letter to then-CEO Sidney Taurel a while back aimed at this squandering, but I'm not sure it meant anything to the company. Some of that is due to the company's failure to consider the impact of managed care and pharmacy benefits managers who actually pay for 80% of the prescription drugs sold in the U.S., and the company's Q2 Earnings presentation showed no sign that the company has learned that vital lesson.

But from my own perspective, I think competition is always a good thing, and I welcome the push into new treatments to finally address the issue of autoimmunity, although only time will tell how sustainable these will actually be.

Novo Nordisk opening Seattle site

By Joseph Tartakoff, P-I Reporter
August 6, 2008

In a major boost to Seattle's biotech community, which this year alone has seen more than 280 workers lose their jobs, Danish drug giant Novo Nordisk is opening a research site here.

By 2010, Novo Nordisk plans to have 80 employees at its Seattle operations, which will identify drug targets for inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. In the past week alone, Novo Nordisk has posted nine Seattle job openings - ranging from senior scientist to site administration manager - on the company's Web site.

A Novo Nordisk spokesman could not immediately comment on the news Tuesday, although a Novo Nordisk ad included some details of its plans.

Novo Nordisk has deep ties to Seattle. Eight years ago, Novo Nordisk spun off its Seattle operations as ZymoGenetics, and it still owns a roughly 30 percent stake in the company, which is Seattle's second-largest biotech employer.

In fact, according to ZymoGenetics Chief Executive Officer Bruce Carter, Novo Nordisk's Seattle operations will be headed by Don Foster, formerly a vice president of research at ZymoGenetics.

"I think this is really good news for Seattle. One of the problems is Corixa gets bought by (GlaxoSmithKline). Icos gets bought by Eli Lilly. This was beginning to shrink," he said, referring to a number of Seattle biotech firms that have been sold in recent years.

"We need more biotechnology companies starting up here. I've been disappointed by how few people from Immunex, Icos started up companies. I think this is great news for this city."

As for the relationship between ZymoGenetics and the Novo Nordisk operations here, Carter said the two companies would simply be "chums."

P-I reporter Joseph Tartakoff can be reached at 206-448-8293 or For more information on life sciences, read

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