Novo Nordisk board member quits over NASH conflict of interest

Novo Nordisk board member Mary Szela has quit to avoid a conflict of interest, after the biotech she runs began developing a rival drug for fatty liver disease.

Also known as non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), many pharma companies are trying to develop drugs to treat this disease, for which there are no approved therapies.

Thanks to fatty diets, NASH is expected to grow more common, and a host of pharma companies including Intercept, Allergan, Shire and Gilead are racing to get treatments approved, and Novo also thinks its semaglutide GLP-1 drug could be a potential therapy.

The NASH market is expected to reach around $35-40 billion by 2025 according to some estimates, representing a huge opportunity for pharma companies searching for new revenue streams.

Szela heads Canadian biotech Novelion, which in April announced early-stage data suggesting that its metreleptin, already approved to treat generalised lipodystrophy, could be used in partial lipodystrophy-associated NASH.

In 23 patients with this disease, the study team reported patients with a lower baseline leptin level appeared to have a higher response rate after a year of treatment with metreleptin.

A statistically significant improvement in NASH scores over baseline was found in 18 patients who completed treatment at one year, Novelion added in its first quarter results announcement.

This and a favourable safety profile were enough to convince the biotech to take the drug further into clinical development.

Szela, who became a Novo Nordisk board member in 2015 has therefore quit with immediate effect.

Göran Ando, chairman of the board of directors at Novo Nordisk, said: “I acknowledge and support Ms Szela’s decision to step down from the board of directors and I would like to thank Ms Szela for her valuable contribution .”

Regulators are already reviewing semaglutide in diabetes. Novo began a phase 2 trial of semaglutide in NASH last year.

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