UPDATED: Setback forces Novo Nordisk to abandon anti-inflammatory R&D work, affecting 400 staffers

Among all the pharma companies, Novo Nordisk ($NVO) always stood out for its relentless R&D focus on diabetes and obesity. Today, the Danish company amped up that concentration another notch, jettisoning a group of clinical programs and winding down its work in anti-inflammatory treatments. And the pharma player added that the move would hit some 400 staffers, with close to half likely to lose their jobs at Novo.

Novo Nordisk CSO Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen

Now that the anti-IL-20 program for NN8226 has been discontinued, said Chief Scientific Officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, Novo was left years away from the first likely approval for an anti-inflammatory therapy. The move will end internal work on two mid-stage drugs for Crohn's disease--an anti-IL-21 program and anti-NGK2D effort. There are also two preclinical programs that are apparently being scrapped as well.

The IL-20 program was discontinued several weeks ago, Thomsen tells FierceBiotech, after it flunked a Phase IIb trial for rheumatoid arthritis. That setback pushed any potential return on investment from this segment of the pipeline "way, way into the future." Diabetes and obesity, meanwhile, has "never been more promising" as the company follows up on its promise to snag a slate of new approvals over the next 5 years.

The anti-NGK2D program for Crohn's will now hit the market as Novo looks for someone else to pick up the license and continue R&D work, says Thomsen.

Novo Nordisk slapped down $24 million in upfront cash and promised up to $157.5 million more to Seattle-based ZymoGenetics to get its hands on the anti-IL-21 program at a time when anti-inflammatories were being pushed as a major new pipeline initiative. Novo landed rights to the anti-NGK2D program--NN8555--from Marseille-based Innate Pharma back in 2007, when it was stepping out of cancer R&D. Novo swapped out rights for an oncology program.

Novo Nordisk is a midsized pharma player with a big interest in diabetes, spending a little more than $2 billion on R&D last year. And the company said it would try and find positions in the fast-growing company for many of the 400 R&D staffers affected by the reorganization. Thomsen also told FierceBiotech that in addition to diabetes and obesity, Novo plans to follow up on its research efforts for hemophilia and growth hormones, smaller but still important segments of the pipeline.

Focus is a big theme in R&D right now among the bigger players. Novo is following in the footsteps of a whole slate of Big Pharma companies which have been narrowing their research focus. AstraZeneca ($AZN) has been winding down its work in the neurosciences field as it concentrates on oncology and other areas with more near-term potential. GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Novartis ($NVS) are swapping out their cancer and vaccine businesses in order to go deeper into franchises where they are market leaders rather than followers. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) reorganized last fall. And more such reorganizations are likely to follow.

- here's the release (PDF)