Third Rock Looks to Fight Fat in a New Way, With Ember Therapeutics

12/15/11Follow @xconomy

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the slow-burning embers that you see in a campfire, is looking to use either conventional small-molecule pills or large-molecule injectable biotech drugs to help the body maintain a steady “gentle combustion” of unwanted fat, Tartaglia says. Specifically, Ember is looking to develop drugs to interact with a protein called irisin that is secreted by brown fat, as well as other undisclosed molecular targets, Tartaglia says.

No brown fat-based drug is yet in clinical trials, and as with any experimental drug, lots of safety issues could derail the program at any point along the way. But Tartaglia says the company should be able to get to clinical trials on this large Series A financing.

Competitors have shown interest in the brown fat field, and just yesterday Switzerland-based pharma giant Roche disclosed promising results from a brown fat study in mice that was was covered by Bloomberg News. Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron Pharma has also done research into brown fat, in collaboration with Spiegelman. Ember says its intent is to get the upper hand by rallying enough scientific leaders, intellectual property, and money around its plan, Tartaglia says. “Like all hot areas, there are a number of companies interested. We are seeing a little bit of that now,” he says.

Ember also isn’t the only Third Rock portfolio company seeking to fight obesity. Cambridge, MA-based Zafgen is developing a new drug that works in a different way, through what scientists say is a mechanism that enables the body to burn fat it would otherwise store away.

Like Zafgen, Ember is being built as a virtual company, with a small core team of about a half dozen senior managers who oversee experimental work done by contract organizations. Mike Solomon, previously the chief business officer of Cambridge, MA-based Link Medicine, has signed on as Ember’s chief operating officer. And David White is the company’s new vice president of biology.

Ember will be getting some inside perspective on what pharma wants to see from one of its scientific advisors, John Amatruda, the former senior vice president at Merck and head of its diabetes and obesity franchise. If Ember can hit some of its early scientific goals, then it will likely need to form a partnership with a major pharmaceutical company because of the sheer size of the market.

Given how gun-shy pharma companies have been about obesity in the wake of past safety debacles like Wyeth’s fen-phen combo and Sanofi’s rimonabant (Acomplia), it will be a major feat if Ember can hit goals that entice a pharma company to open up its checkbook, either through a partnership or acquisition.

But Tartaglia says he’s confident the new biologic mechanism, working on brown fat, makes all the difference. “There are tractable approaches to expanding and augmenting brown fat that are realistic from a pharma perspective,” he says.

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