Novo Nordisk bets $1.1B on Canadian biotech buyout, adding an old approach to obesity pipeline

Novo Nordisk is keeping its foot on the gas as it strives to carve out a strong position in the exploding obesity market, inking a deal worth up to $1.1 billion to buy a Canadian biotech that is dusting off an old approach to triggering weight loss.

The biotech, Inversago Pharma, is focused on drugs that block the cannabinoid CB1 receptor. Sanofi won approval for a CB1 receptor blocker weight loss drug, rimonabant, in Europe in 2006. However, European authorities withdrew (PDF) the approval in 2009 after studies linked the drug, sold as Acomplia, to a doubling of the risk of psychiatric disorders. The product never won approval in the U.S.

Since then, scientists have continued to study the potential to treat obesity by blocking the cannabinoid receptor. Inversago leveraged its work on the target to raise $70 million from investors including New Enterprise Associates, Forbion and Amgen Ventures last year.

The Montreal-based biotech has primarily focused on the use of CB1 blockers outside of obesity, moving its lead asset, INV-202, into a phase 2 trial in patients with diabetic kidney disease late last year. But, with its obesity business booming, Novo Nordisk framed the takeover in the context of the weight loss potential.

In a statement to disclose the takeover, the Danish drugmaker said Inversago’s CB1 receptor blockers are designed to help people “with obesity, diabetes and complications associated with metabolic disorder,” adding that the molecules “preferentially block CB1 receptors in peripheral tissues such as adipose.”

Novo Nordisk’s focus on the restriction of the molecules to peripheral tissues reflects the adverse events seen in recipients of rimonabant. Researchers linked the psychiatric side effects in patients on the Sanofi drug to the effect of interactions between rimonabant and the central nervous system. By only acting on peripheral tissue, INV-202 may drive weight loss without causing psychiatric adverse events.

INV-202 has shown a tolerable side effect profile, although it is yet to be tested in large, late-phase trials. The data generated to date have persuaded Novo Nordisk to add INV-202 and other CB1 blockers to an obesity operation that is largely focused on GLP-1. 

“The INV-2020 molecule … is designed to reach the brain with minimal activity, but maximum activity in the peripheral tissue,” Novo Nordisk’s EVP of Development Martin Holst Lange said on a call with analysts this morning. “And what we have seen in the clinical space is actually an efficacy that is somewhat beyond what [was seen with rimonabant] and a safety profile that appears, at least in a smaller setting, to have been de-risked in accordance with the design.”

An analog of the appetite-regulating hormone, PYY, was the only other approach to treating obesity in the clinical pipeline. However, Novo Nordisk recently ended development of the candidate after seeing what Holst Lange described as a "modest treatment effect" in the phase 2 data. The action was one of two terminations disclosed in Novo Nordisk’s second-quarter results, along with a fixed dose combination of semaglutide and an SGLT2 inhibitor.