Trimming the fat

Zafgen, Argenta sign anti-obesity drug development deal

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CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Zafgen Inc. is teaming up with U.K.-based Argenta Discovery Ltd. to fight the battle of the bulge.

According to Dr. Thomas Hughes, president and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Zafgen, the companies are teaming up to co-develop anti-obesity drugs. He added that the companies have agreed not to divulge financial terms of the collaboration, calling it a "fully-resourced drug discovery program." The agreement does provide options to expand the collaboration.

Zafgen is developing therapeutics that shrink fat cells and will collaborate with Argenta, a contract respiratory research and development company, to further its efforts.

Dr. Christopher Ashton, Argenta's CEO, said the company is pleased at the prospects the collaboration with Zafgen presents.

"Their decision to work with us is based on our contract research team's acknowledged expertise, and our ability to offer a fully integrated approach to drug discovery," Ashton says.

Founded nearly nine years ago, Argenta's contract research division provides integrated drug discovery services, comprising medicinal chemistry, computer-aided drug design, biochemistry, in vitro screening and DMPK, to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies worldwide.

Zafgen is the first biopharmaceutical company dedicated to developing novel obesity therapeutics that directly target and shrink fat tissue to help the body regain and sustain a lean, healthy state.

"This approach is based on new research that shows that the nature of adipose tissue, or fat cells, is what causes obesity," Hughes says. "The fat cells grow or shrink individually. The cells determine whether an individual has a normal weight or becomes obese. It is our belief that by cutting off their blood supply, the fat cells can be shrunk, which can reduce a person's mass and weight."

Scientists from the companies will use Argenta's expertise in computer-aided drug design, chemistry and assay development. It is hoped this will accelerate the development of Zafgen's drug candidates, Hughes said.

"The approach that Zafgen is taking is unique with regard to obesity, targeting disease at its root cause," he says. "We are directly shrinking the fat tissue by controlling its ability to expand and contract."

The partnership with Argenta currently is limited to the current scope of work, though Hughes said Zafgen would consider future endeavors that matched the company's focus. Hughes also points out that Zafgen's focus is to develop products that will tackle significant amounts of weight gain in a rapid and controlled fashion.

"We are most interested in the population that is severely obese," he says. "We believe the compounds will ultimately have utility at the lower end of the spectrum as well. This market is completely unsatisfied. Sister diseases related to obesity, such as hypertension and type II diabetes have markets that are in the range of tens of billions of dollar. The U.S market for obesity pharmaceuticals in the last year was $500 million. The opportunity is tremendously unrealized."

The collaboration with Argenta will ensure that Zafgen has a supply of high-end products, he adds.

"We want to make sure the chemical matter that we are developing for our program is as state-of-the-art as possible," says Hughes. "We wanted to also cover as much through chemical space to ensure we are securing a good intellectual property position."

While the goal is for Zafgen's products to shrink the waistlines of patients, the end result would be a fatter collection of patents, a growing pipeline of compounds and a burgeoning bottom line for the company.

"Whenever you are looking and a medicinal chemistry program, the outputs are measured in the form of the quality of the patents generated and the quality of the chemical matter that is generated," says Hughes. "We will look and see if we have developed drug-like molecules that lead to weight loss."

As for the company's business model, Hughes says it may be a plan that will prove to be attractive to more companies in the future.

"We are a small virtual company in many regards that is levering an extensive network of collaborative research organizations out there today," he said. "If you have a team that knows how to do drug discovery, you can find the resources you need."

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