Novo Nordisk's new Boston-area campus reflects 'competitive' R&D growth, and not just for GLP-1s

The weather in Lexington, Massachusetts, may have been rainy and dreary Wednesday, but the mood inside Novo Nordisk’s new U.S. R&D homebase was anything but. 

Scientists, stakeholders, executives and politicians piled into the old Dicerna facility, which has been under Novo ownership since the Danish pharma bought the biotech for $3.3 billion back in 2021. Wednesday’s event marked the formal unveiling of the redesigned facility, which solidifies the Boston area as Novo’s companion headquarters alongside Copenhagen. 

The new campus coincides with a rapid rise in Novo’s R&D investments, which have increased in parallel with the company’s skyrocketing revenue thanks to its obesity and diabetes portfolio, led by Wegovy and Ozempic, respectively. Novo spent roughly $1.5 billion on R&D in the fourth quarter, equivalent to nearly 16% of its sales revenue. Total R&D spending rose 35% in 2023, essentially mirroring the growth in sales. 

“We're now getting ourselves into a place that is competitive in terms of R&D spending,” Novo's chief scientific officer and head of research and early development, Marcus Schindler, Ph.D., said in an interview on the sidelines of the event. 

As expected, much of the current and future investments will center on Novo’s existing cardiometabolic focus. But the company also deliberately tries to allocate a portion of the R&D budget to developing new therapies that deviate from core priorities. A recent example is Novo’s phase 1 cell therapy program to treat Parkinson’s disease. Schindler said that instead of just focusing on innovating beta stem cells to treat diabetes, Novo has been guided by where the most exciting science is. 

“There was an element of curiosity—opportunity space that presented itself,” he said. “Although we couldn’t necessarily fit it into the core strategy, we still support it and are supporting it.”

Part of Novo’s cell research is not just on advancements in modality to improve efficacy for a specific disease, but to conceptualize and work on new delivery methods, Schindler explained. 

“We're also using the Parkinson's [program] as an archetype of one particular way of doing cell therapy,” he said. That plus related programs in heart failure and diabetes “all have their right to be explored,” the CSO added. 

Another aberration is some early work testing siRNAs as cancer treatments, although Schindler stressed that “we're definitely not an oncology company.” The research centers on the “backbone chemistry” of Novo’s oligonucleotides, and Schindler said some preclinical models look promising. 

“We won't be the company that will bring it to market, but we learn something and we have an opportunity then to partner,” he explained. 

The focus remains on treating cardiometabolic disease, namely obesity, diabetes and liver disease. Schindler, who joined Novo in 2018 after working at AstraZeneca, said there’s now a hype in the obesity sector that means inexperienced players and suspect science will likely follow. That makes Novo’s job in part to “disentangle” the bad from the good, the genuine breakthroughs from “bottom drawer” molecules. 

Of most interest to Schindler and Novo are advancements in the space that can improve efficacy and also a “literal remodeling of the system.” The latter encompasses research into ways patients could be treated less frequently and/or maintain weight loss long after treatment ends. 

“So we're actually starting to think-tank about what would it take us to go into once-half-a-year or even a yearly treatment regimen,” he said. “What if we could think about obesity medication like a once-yearly vaccine?”

The consideration falls into a larger bucket of research focused on weight management rather than obesity, something other pharmas, like AstraZeneca, are also exploring. The value, to Schindler at least, is part of a broader pharmacology proposition that centers on how pharmaceutical companies can help patients lose weight and then keep it off. Less known is that Novo has a prevention unit as well, considering how to stop obesity in patients who are more prone to develop it than others.  

In terms of larger organizational structure, the new Boston hub is not competing against the European headquarters but is meant to take advantage of the talent in the region. Bei Zhang, Ph.D., is a good example, hired in August to lead the obesity therapeutic area after spearheading metabolic research at the likes of Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Merck. 

“It's much easier to attract people like this here than to ask them to relocate to Denmark,” Schindler said.