Novo Nordisk swallows another obesity biotech, paying $16M upfront for its preclinical partner

Novo Nordisk is continuing to seek out obesity assets, paying 15 million euros ($16 million) to snap up Embark Biotech in its second weight loss takeover in quick succession. 

The clinical and emerging commercial success of GLP-1 drugs developed by Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly in diabetes and obesity has turned weight loss into one of the hottest categories in pharma—and sparked a scramble to snap up next-generation candidates. Lilly inked a deal worth $1.9 billion to buy Versanis Bio last month, and Novo Nordisk struck back in August with the buyouts of Inversago Pharma and Embark.

Copenhagen-based Embark has been on Novo Nordisk’s radar for years. The biotech spun out of the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen in 2017, was incubated at Novo Seeds and began collaborating with Novo Nordisk in 2018.

Embark is built on research carried out at the lab of Zachary Gerhart-Hines, Ph.D. The lab studied a signaling axis between the adipose tissue, gut and central nervous system, leading to the identification of targets that are involved in fat energy expenditure.  

Novo Nordisk’s statement about the takeover lacks details of the targets, and Embark’s website has been replaced by a link to the press release about the acquisition. But an archived version of the biotech’s website shows the company was developing agonists of EMB1, a previously undescribed adipocyte G-protein coupled receptor, in the belief they drive weight loss by raising glucose uptake and energy expenditure.

In February, Embark’s site listed its long-lived EMB1 peptide program as being in preclinical development in preparation for first-in-human trials. The biotech received grant money to support preclinical safety tests late last year.

Embark’s website also discussed GPR3, a constitutively active G-protein coupled receptor that it called an “important regulator of thermogenic adipose activity.” Researchers at Embark and its partners published a paper on GPR3 in 2021, in which they described how “mice were completely protected from developing diet-induced obesity despite maintaining comparable levels of food intake.”

As well as the 15 million euro upfront payment, Novo Nordisk is committing up to 456 million euros ($496 million) in commercial milestones to acquire Embark’s science. All the biotech’s employees will transfer to a new group, Embark Laboratories, to “continue their work and scientific journey.” The new company is focused on cardiometabolic disease and has formed a three-year obesity R&D collaboration with Novo Nordisk.