The Boston-Area Obesity Treatment Cluster: Are Flood Gates Opening for Weight-Loss Drugs and Devices?

10/8/08

We’re not a particularly weight-conscious crew, but we at Xconomy have been noticing lately that the ranks of Boston-area firms focusing on obesity seem to be, well, growing. (See page two for our list of such companies.)

Last month, for example, I profiled Lexington, MA-based GI Dynamics, which has reported progress in clinical trials with a device that lines a portion of the small intestine to help block the absorption of calories. Luke chronicled stealthy Cambridge biotech startup Zafgen, which is developing drugs to starve fat cells by cutting their blood supply. Then at our Xconomy Forum at Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research last month, presenter RXi Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:RXII) of Worcester, MA, showed that it’s applying the gene-silencing power of RNA interference to treat obesity.

Even Bedford, MA-based diagnostics giant Hologic (NASDAQ:HOLX) and Wilmington, MA-based lab services behemoth Charles River Laboratories International (NYSE:CRL) are getting in on the action. They’re among the Bay State firms that headed out to Phoenix, AZ this week for the annual meeting of the Obesity Society—Hologic has developed dual energy X-ray machines for measuring body mass and Charles River offers lines of obese mice and rats for pre-clinical studies.

To make sense of this recent flurry of anti-obesity activity, I caught up with obesity market expert Jonas Arenas, an analyst for Boston-based health care investment bank Leerink Swann. What Arenas described was an obesity market with untold billions of dollars in revenue potential but a lack of safe and effective treatment options. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about a third of Americans are obese, and the government is acutely aware of the links between obesity and diabetes, heart diseases and even certain types of cancer. To clarify the regulatory path for experimental obesity treatments, Arenas says, the FDA in February revealed that it would accept impacts on key measurements for diabetes such as blood glucose levels and pancreatic function markers as bases of approval for obesity treatments. This was a major development for drug and device companies aiming for approvals—as well as reimbursements—for weight-loss products.

“As a friend of mine who’s a pharmaceutical executive at a big company that’s involved in this area said,” Arenas says, “The flood gates are now open. It’s not just about losing weight … Next Page »

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