UR Scientist Wins Novo Nordisk Award to Develop Obesity Drug

Nov. 11, 2015
Principal Investigator Rick Phipps, with Collynn Woeller, left, and Weimin Kaufman

University of Rochester Medical Center researcher Richard P. Phipps, Ph.D., won a top scientific award from the pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, to collaborate on a new obesity therapy based on his laboratory’s discoveries.

Phipps, the Wright Family Research Professor of Environmental Medicine, is the first UR faculty to receive the competitive Novo Nordisk Diabetes and Obesity Biologics Science Forum Award. The drug company is providing substantial financial support for the two-year project, which is designed to quickly move basic science in diabetes and obesity to an early stage of drug development known as proof-of-principle.

Phipps discovered a new function for a protein known as Thy1 (formally called CD90), linking it to fat cell accumulation. Subsequently, the Phipps lab began developing a treatment using a Thy 1 peptide to potentially prevent or reverse obesity. (Peptides are chains of amino acids that can be modified and used to design new drugs.)

Novo Nordisk has 90 years of experience developing peptides such as insulin and other treatments for diabetes, which is often associated with obesity. Phipps applied for the Biologics Science Forum Award to leverage that expertise, and Novo Nordisk selected Phipps’ lab for the award following extensive screening and a competitive process that included approximately 100 other applicants.

“This unique partnership between our academic lab and Novo Nordisk has the potential to move our product forward faster than anything we could have achieved on our own,” said Phipps, who also has academic appointments in five other URMC departments. “Novo Nordisk is heavily invested in this issue and our research fits into their portfolio. We’re grateful to be selected and look forward to contributing to a solution for the obesity epidemic.”

An estimated 60 million people are defined as clinically obese in the United States. Across the globe, Phipps said, obesity rates are growing fastest in well-developed regions such as Asia, Latin America, and even in parts of the Middle East and Africa.

It’s also more difficult to lose weight today than it was 20 years ago, Phipps said. He speculates that in addition to a lack of exercise and higher calories consumed, other factors influence obesity such as changes in the microorganisms that live in the gut, overuse of artificial sweeteners, consumption of processed foods, and greater exposure to endocrine disruptors like air pollution, bisphenol A, and phthalates.

His lab brings a biological perspective to obesity, which is often is viewed as a behavioral problem; some diet pills, for example, contain anti-depressants and anti-addiction medications and do not address what’s happening at the molecular level to promote fat cell accumulation. Phipps’ lab is studying whether Thy1 levels are different in people at birth, or whether they change with time and exposure to various environmental agents.

Published data by Phipps and a key investigator, Collynn Woeller, Ph.D., a research associate professor of Environmental Medicine, demonstrated in mice and in human cells that expression of Thy1 is lost during fat cell development—suggesting that obesity could be treated by restoring Thy1. The lab has also shown that Thy1 peptides work to prevent or treat fat mice by directly targeting the tissue in stored fat pads (like visceral fat around the mid-section) that contain more inflammatory proteins, and lipid vacuoles (cellular fat globs). Both tend to be associated with diabetes and fatty liver disease. The new treatment can significantly reduce stored fat, early experiments showed.

The UR Ventures Technology Development Fund (TDF) provided money to the Phipps lab to validate its discovery and to generate critical proof-of-concept data requested by Novo Nordisk.

“This is not only a great scientific story, with an entirely new approach to obesity—but it also highlights the value of the UR Ventures’ Technology Development Fund, said Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., vice dean for research at the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry. “TDF gives us the resources and business insight to develop and refine new technologies that result from our research mission, to the point where they can be more readily picked up by industry partners. This new partnership with Novo Nordisk is therefore especially pleasing and represents a key first step toward moving a truly exciting scientific discovery from the bench to the bedside.”

Weimin Kaufman, Ph.D., M.B.A., licensing manager at UR Ventures, worked closely with Phipps and Woeller to secure the TDF award, and later, the Novo Nordisk award. UR Ventures also took the appropriate steps to seek intellectual property protections on the potential obesity treatment generated in the Phipps lab.