GSK expands academic collaboration initiative, backs drug to treat severe obesity

collaborationIn the past couple of years big pharmaceutical companies have been reaching out to universities to replenish their drug development pipelines. Vanderbilt University said it would be working with GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) to develop a group of drugs to treat severe obesity, according to a statement from the university.

The collaboration is part of the drugmaker’s Discovery Partnerships with Academia program.

The focus of the therapeutic development program with Vanderbilt will be the melanocortin-4 receptor, which is involved with homeostasis — the balance of food intake and energy expenditure — and regulates body weight. Early onset obesity is usually caused by a reduction in melanocortin signaling because of a defect in the receptor. Through research funded by the National Institutes of Health, Vanderbilt has discovered compounds that can “gently” increase the signaling by the these receptors.

Dr. Roger Cone, the chair of the department of molecular physiology and biophysics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, discovered  MC4-R and showed it could potentially treat obesity in the late 1990s. One challenge MC4 inhibitors have posed in their development is that clinical trials showed they increased some participants’ blood pressure because of the speed at which they were activated. Cone said in the university’s collaboration with GSK it will gradually increase receptor activity to avoid raising blood pressure in patients with partially defective melanocortin signaling. The approach could mean that the treatment will also be effective in treating the more common form of obesity.


Under the terms of the agreement, Vanderbilt will do the pharmacology and pre-clinical testing, according to the statement. Scientists for the British drugmaker will try to develop chemically similar compounds with improved activity and efficacy. The goal is to begin Phase I testing in humans by 2016. The university’s research will be funded by GSK and the drugmaker will make additional payments for hitting milestones. The university will also get a share of the royalties.

Obesity has surpassed starvation as the top food problem in the world, according to data from the World Health Organization.

GSK launched its Discovery Partnerships with Academia program in 2011. Last year, as part of that program, the UK-based drugmaker began a collaboration with its first US institution — Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington– to  develop a small-molecule therapeutic to reverse a form of muscular dystrophy. The treatment involves inhibiting a protein from a defective gene called DUX4. Separate to this program, GSK has also collaborated with Yale University.

The trend of Big Pharma companies collaborating with universities accelerated in 2011. Osage University Partners assembled a helpful list of publicly disclosed collaborations from 2008-2011.


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