Zafgen, Developer of Fat-Shrinking Drugs, Hires Novartis Scientist as New CEO and Emerges From Stealth Mode

9/9/08Follow @xconomy

Zafgen is creating drugs to shrink fat. Today, the Cambridge, MA-based biotech company took an early step toward its goal by hiring its first permanent CEO, Tom Hughes, the former vice president and global head of cardiovascular and metabolism research at the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research in Cambridge.

Hughes, 49, says he was drawn to the company for three reasons: its method for treating obesity is unlike anything else in development, the disease is a monster public health problem, and the company has solid backing from Atlas Venture and Third Rock Ventures. The company’s intellectual property is based on research done by Maria Rupnick at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Rupnick has shown, in work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, that experimental drugs can interfere with the growth of new blood vessels in fat tissue. That causes mice to lose weight, and have their fat tissue shrink, while maintaining lean body mass. Many other drugs in development for obesity work on receptors in the brain, trying to coax the body to think it’s full and stop eating.

The market opportunity might be the biggest ever in the pharmaceutical industry. About two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical expenses in the U.S. from obesity totaled $75 billion in 2003, half financed by taxpayers, according to the CDC.

Zafgen believes it can build on some of the lessons researchers have learned when fighting cancer to the growing obesity epidemic. Several drugs, like Genentech’s Avastin, have shown that cutting off the flow of blood to tumors can work against cancer. Zafgen’s idea is that fat tissue, like tumors, also has lots of blood vessels growing in it, and thrives on an ability to grow new ones as it expands—so interrupting that process can make a difference.

“This is not an idea that’s being discussed openly or broadly at scientific meetings, but this is a field that’s going to blow wide open,” Hughes says.

A lot still needs to happen first, but Hughes brings credibility to the task. … Next Page »

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