It’s a case of good fat versus bad fat. Scientists have discovered recently that so-called brown fat, long known to be present in animals and human infants, might also play an important role in the metabolic functions of adult humans. Now Energesis Pharmaceuticals, a Boston-area startup, wants to use its founders’ knowledge of this phenomenon to develop drugs for obesity, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
The startup, which has offices in Boston and Cambridge, MA, has garnered some recognition in recent weeks with a $50,000 award from the MassChallenge global startup competition in Boston. Brian Freeman, the firm’s co-founder and chief operating officer, says he is now on the hunt for more funding to finance the startup’s drug discovery efforts. The company wants to find drugs that boost the activity or mass of brown fat to treat diseases such as obesity.
Freeman, a practicing neurologist within the Veteran Affairs medical system, talked to me about his firm’s technology last week at the Cambridge startup incubator Dogpatch Labs, where the company has been granted temporary office space. He and his two co-founders—Olivier Boss, a former scientist at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, and Jean-Paul Giacobino, a professor emeritus at the University of Geneva Medical School in Switzerland—have been working on getting Energesis off the ground since 2009. (Boss worked at Sirtris, a developer of drugs for diabetes and other diseases of aging, when British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) bought the biotech for $720 million in June 2008.)
Freeman is in familiar territory at the new startup. He previously co-founded Zafgen, another firm focused on obesity treatments in Cambridge. He started Zafgen while he was a venture partner at Cambridge’s GreatPoint Ventures, which is a firm that focuses on starting emerging technology companies. Zafgen had raised about $30 million as of March from investors such as Third Rock Ventures in Boston and Atlas Venture in Cambridge. While Freeman handles the business end of Energesis, Boss and Giacobino serve as the resident experts on metabolic disorders. They also co-discovered the brown fat stem cells that form the basis of the startup’s drug-discovery technology.
Energesis might have a fresh line of attack on obesity and other metabolic disorders. The firm is focusing on the way the body expends energy, rather than the traditional focus on trying to suppress a patient’s appetite through interacting with brain cell receptors, or to somehow block the absorption of nutrients in the gut to limit the intake of calories. Brown fat, or so-called good fat, can be a powerful ally against regular stored fat in the body. It features a protein called uncoupling protein-1 that helps dissipate energy and contributes to weight loss, according to Energesis.
“Olivier and I actually met about five years ago at an MIT networking event and discovered that we had a common interest in developing better approaches to obesity and diabetes,” Freeman says. “As the brown fat story was taking off about a year and a half ago, he came to me and said that [he] had invented this technology and asked what I thought of it.”
The startup’s technology addresses one of the biggest drug markets today. About a third of American adults were considered obese based on statistics gathered from 2007 to 2008, according to a January 2010 paper published online in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Obesity is a major risk factor in the development of diabetes, which affected nearly 8 percent of the U.S. population as of 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, drug developers have had limited success in delivering new obesity drugs to the market. Last month the FDA turned down San Diego-based Arena Pharmaceuticals’s (NASDAQ:ARNA) request for U.S. approval of a weight-loss drug, lorcaserin, at the very least delaying what the biotech had hoped would be its first approved drug. And Wyeth’s fen-phen combination therapy disaster in the 1990s caused the company to set aside $22 billion for legal settlements after patients who took the weight-loss drug had suffered damaged heart valves. The list goes on, of course.
Still, these failures also leave an open field, however risky it is, for newcomers to provide solutions to the obesity epidemic in this country. At the very least, Energesis has impressed enough entrepreneurs to win the MassChallenge award last month. Yet the company still has a lot of ground to cover. Freeman says that the firm plans to focus over the next two and a half years on identifying a lead drug candidate that has been proven in animal models of the firm’s disease targets. They’ve already identified several classes of molecules that could yield a drug. Then the treatment would have to make its way through rigorous human clinical trials to prove that it’s safe and effective.
Energesis isn’t the only biotech company that sees potential in targeting brown fat to treat metabolic disease. For instance, Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron Pharma has discovered a protein-based drug that has shown in early animal studies to to increase brown fat and provide metabolic benefits such as a decrease of (bad) white fat tissue.
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