Boehringer adds to obesity therapy search with Circuit alliance

Boehringer Ingelheim’s (BI) recent moves into obesity R&D have been consolidated by a new collaboration with Circuit Therapeutics that will explore the condition’s neurological basis.

The new three-year agreement with Circuit builds on an earlier programme looking at new drugs for neuropsychiatric disorders and will look for neuronal circuits in the body that are involved in appetite and the regulation of food intake.

Eating disorders are among the major contributing factors to the development of overweightness and obesity, which are major risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

The existing programme between the two companies has already used Circuit’s optogenetic technology – which allows the study and control of single neurons – to uncover drug targets for anhedonia, an inability to feel pleasure. Anhedonia is a feature of a number of psychiatric conditions such as depression and schizophrenia but is generally not alleviated by current therapies.

“This new technology may enable us to unravel the neurological circuits responsible for metabolic disorders down to individual neurons which could lead to the identification of new targets and subsequently new treatments,” said Dr Michel Pairet, who leads the research and non-clinical development operations at BI.

The German company has long been present in the metabolic disease therapeutic category with a partnership with Eli Lilly for diabetes signed in 2011, but sees obesity and other complications of diabetes as a fertile ground for expansion.

It has been working with Swiss institute ETH Zurich since 2012 on a project looking at the involvement of neuroendocrine cells in the pancreas and intestine, as well as brown adipose tissue in the development of diabetes and obesity, and is also working with Zealand Pharma on GLP agonists for both indications.

In May, BI also licensed rights to an anti-inflammatory drug developed by Pharmaxis that could be used to treat non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), another condition with a high prevalence in diabetic and obese patients.

At the moment there are five drugs specifically approved to treat obesity on the market, including Roche’s Xenical (orlistat), Orexigen and Takeda’s Contrave (naltrexone and bupropion), Eisai/Arena’s Belviq (lorcaserin) and Vivus’ Qsymia (phentermine/topiramate).

None of these has made any particular headway in the market despite the huge incidence of obesity worldwide, although there has been widespread speculation that the latest entrant, Novo Nordisk’s Saxenda (liraglutide), could buck that trend, with some analysts predicting peak sales of $2 billion or more.

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