Novo Nordisk’s Historic Mistake is Seattle’s Future Gain, Says Novo CEO

9/18/09Follow @xconomy

Seattle might never have gotten its newest biotech research center if not for a historic corporate blunder from 30 years ago, according to Lars Rebien Sorensen, the CEO of Novo Nordisk.

Novo, the Danish drugmaker that is the world’s biggest producer of insulin for treating diabetes, was approached then by a small biotech company from California that thought it could help Novo come up with a better way to treat diabetes. This little company had an idea for making genetically engineered copies of the human insulin protein, which would be more effective, and less likely to provoke an immune system reaction in patients than the standard insulins of the day, which were derived from animals. Novo was satisfied with what it had, and politely said no thanks, according to Sorensen.

That little company was South San Francisco-based Genentech. It went on to form a partnership with Eli Lilly to make genetically engineered human insulin in the early 1980s, which soon made animal-derived insulin completely obsolete, and directly threatened Novo’s core business. Novo Nordisk was forced to play catch up, and it found a little biotech partner from the 1980s in Seattle—ZymoGenetics—that helped it create a human form of insulin that was able to become a dominant player.

Sorensen told this little parable this morning at the grand opening of Novo Nordisk’s brand new research center in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. This event drew a lot of the who’s who in Seattle biotech, and Sorensen told this little parable to make a point. Novo doesn’t want to be that short-sighted again, and while it’s prospering with its treatment for the global diabetes epidemic, it wants to spend some of that money planting seeds for the future opportunities in biotech that it doesn’t want to miss.

Lars Rebien Sorensen

Lars Rebien Sorensen

After considering what it knows from its years of partnership with ZymoGenetics, and watching Immunex create a breakthrough for rheumatoid arthritis that now generates $7 billion a year in sales, Novo has reached two conclusions: Autoimmune diseases are said to affect one out of every 12 Americans, and represent a big unrealized opportunity for the future of pharmaceuticals. Seattle is one of the best places to tap into scientific know-how that has a shot to create the next generation of medicines for those patients, Sorensen said.

“We do not want to make the same mistake again,” Sorensen said this morning at the grand opening.

Novo is putting its money where its mouth is, investing while others are cutting in the recession. It proudly showed off its facility at this morning’s event. The research center at the corner of Mercer and Fairview Avenue North, is led by former ZymoGenetics scientist Don Foster. It currently employs 35 people, and is expected to grow to 60 people by the end of 2010.

The company definitely wants to make inroads with the local VIPs in Seattle. Mayor Greg Nickels showed up to deliver some welcoming remarks, and some big names from local biotech were there to mingle—VLST’s Marty Simonetti and Paul Carter, ZymoGenetics chairman Bruce Carter, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute president Ken Stuart, and Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association president Chris Rivera. They were there to mix with some very well-dressed Danish business executives, including Sorensen and Novo’s chief scientific officer Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen.

Foster—who looked just like a classic American scientist a little uncomfortable in a suit, speaking in front of an audience—actually delivered a pretty forceful case for why he’s excited about the opportunity to create new drugs with Novo. He railed against the trend in the industry toward creating “me-too” products that attempt to make money by piggybacking on truly groundbreaking discoveries like Immunex’s etanercept (Enbrel), but that don’t really add much benefit for patients. Novo, he says, is going to stick its neck out and collaborate with innovative biotechs like VLST that can help it discover promising new avenues for therapy, and then put its corporate horsepower in manufacturing back in Denmark to work.

“I can remember saying to my wife a year ago that I wanted to find a place with the will, the resources, the fortitude, and the patience to come up with new biologic therapies,” Foster told the audience. “We will not be a me-too company. We will make a difference.”

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  • Anonymous

    This story stretches the facts just a bit. Notably, while biosynthetic “human” insulin never proved any more effective than highly-purified insulin sourced from abbatoir animal pancreas glands. Years later, several different studies published in different scientific and medical journals discovered there was a good reason for that: human insulin was one of the targets for the body’s errant immune system, hence there was no benefit in treating patients with that. In fact, it wouldn’t be until nearly 30 years later that biotechnology proved it could improve upon the ADME characteristics of human insulin that it achieved any benefit in terms of managing the disease. Also, while rival Lilly did launch synthetic human insulin in 1982, Novo Nordisk was able to chemically convert porcine insulin (which differed by a single amino acid) to human insulin and introduce that to the market less than a year later, so the first-mover benefit to Lilly were very short-lived. Beyond this, Novo Nordisk is again playing catch-up to rivals including Teva. While patients may hope Novo proves successful in this endeavor, the promise (so far) has proven greater than the hype.

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