Novo Nordisk puts $255M on the line to bag another obesity asset, turning to EraCal for novel approach

Novo Nordisk has piled yet another obesity program on its plate. Seeking to build on its early lead in the blockbuster market, the Danish drugmaker has agreed (PDF) to pay EraCal Therapeutics up to 235 million euros ($255 million) to work on a novel mechanism of action for controlling appetite and body weight.

EraCal, a Swiss biotech built on phenotypic drug discovery technology, formed a research collaboration with Novo Nordisk two years ago. That pact gave the Big Pharma the chance to work with EraCal to study potential obesity candidates in zebrafish larvae, an approach that could overcome the challenges of assessing the impact of molecules on food intake in vitro. 

Using the platform, EraCal discovered a small molecule that “is believed to target a novel mechanism of action controlling appetite and body weight to treat obesity,” the biotech said in a statement. Novo Nordisk has secured exclusive rights to the oral program in exchange for an upfront payment of undisclosed size, plus development and commercial milestones that bring the total value of the deal up to 235 million euros.

At this stage, the public is in the dark about exactly what Novo Nordisk has bought. EraCal previously named Era-379, an oral small molecule appetite suppressor, as its lead candidate but provided a limited look at the nutrient sensing mechanism. 

That candidate targets an “undisclosed novel protein that drives peripheral liver–brain signaling and acts in concert with GLP-1-targeting agents in vivo.” The potential for synergy with GLP-1 agonists reflects the fact that, unlike that breakthrough class of obesity drugs, the molecule acts on appetite without affecting the vagus nerve that connects the gut to the brain. 

EraCal has also discussed additional small molecule programs that act on energy expenditure, appetite induction and circadian cycles. The statement to disclose the Novo Nordisk deal lacks details of the mechanism of the licensed asset.

Novo Nordisk's move to license the program furthers a business development strategy that has taken shape since it entered into the original research collaboration with EraCal. In that time, Novo Nordisk has acquired Embark Biotech and Inversago Pharma, entered into a collaboration with Omega Therapeutics and otherwise set the stage for candidates that could cement its status as top dog in an increasingly competitive space. 

Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Jørgensen sounded sanguine about obesity competition at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference earlier this month, telling attendees anything that raises “awareness of obesity as a chronic disease” is good for business. Competitive positioning will become more important as the space matures and Jørgensen is building a pipeline to “lift the bar in terms of what is attractive weight loss.”