Jacob Petersen, DMSc, Novo Nordisk senior vice president, head of global nucleic acid therapies [GEN/Alex Philippidis]

LEXINGTON, MA—For Jacob Petersen, DMSc, Novo Nordisk’s quest to treat diabetes and metabolic disorders is personal: His daughter Vita was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2016 at age 3.

“I thought I knew everything about diabetes. I know the key opinion leaders and the patients’ organizations. I’d worked on it for decades. But I must admit it was a humbling experience getting a daughter that had type 1 diabetes,” Petersen, a Novo Nordisk senior vice president and the company’s head of global nucleic acid therapies, told GEN Edge.

“I found out how difficult it is to be a patient with a chronic disease. You are still a patient 24-7. You still have to make hundreds of independent decisions every day, regardless of how good the drugs we and others have.”

Petersen stressed that the goal is “finding a cure, an ultimate treatment for diabetes. That will take a little bit of time. But that’s our long-term aspiration. That is what our founding fathers wanted us to do, and that is what goes through the entire company… We’re not going to rest before we have reached that goal.”

Novo Nordisk has taken its latest step toward reaching that goal, by celebrating the opening of the newest space within its U.S. Research and Early Development Hub in Greater Boston.

Novo Nordisk bases about 450 full-time employees at the Hub, including 200 people hired last year. That regional workforce is expected to grow by about 75 additional people this year.

Flush with billions from its blockbuster weight-loss drugs, the Danish pharma giant Novo Nordisk is pouring resources into an expansion of its presence on American soil that includes the new space, which consists of approximately 80,000 square feet in a cluster of biotech companies at 65 Hayden Ave in Lexington, MA. The space houses Novo Nordisk’s Global Nucleic Acid Therapies and Advanced Drug Delivery R&D groups, the latter a part of the company’s Global Research Technologies unit.

Global Nucleic Acid Therapies aims to expand use of gene therapy, gene editing, and RNA interference (RNAi) across therapeutic areas and indications. Global Research Technologies applies lab technologies and experimental expertise designed to enable discovery and early development of drugs.

Novo Nordisk plans to eventually grow its Lexington space to approximately 100,000 square feet in the near future. “We are trying to make a hub with fully integrated, end-to-end early research to early development capabilities,” Petersen said.

That means combining Global Nucleic Acid Therapies and Global Research Technologies with four other functions that constitute Novo Nordisk’s R&D value chain:

  • Global Drug Discovery, which works with both internal colleagues and external collaboration partners.
  • Bio Innovation Hub, an R&D unit designed to partner with academic institutions, emerging biotechs, and established companies.
  • Global Development, which oversees the company’s clinical activities from when a drug enters the clinic through submission and approval phases, through commercial launch.
  • Digital Science and Innovation (DSI) and Data Science, which aims to support and accelerate research through artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and automation.

Four locations

These functions are divided between Lexington and three other locations. The Lexington site, which also consists of 33 and 75 Hayden Ave., includes Dicerna Therapeutics, a Novo Nordisk subsidiary focused on RNA interference (RNAi) drug development.

Five miles down Route 128, Novo Nordisk is converting a 185,000-square-foot former Verizon Labs site in Waltham into advanced lab and office space for Global Research Technologies, Global Drug Discovery, and Digital Science & Innovation operations. Novo Nordisk plans to move into the Waltham facility (60 Sylvan Road) next year.

The Waltham building is part of the Alexandria Center for Life Science, a five-building campus owned by publicly traded life sciences developer-owner Alexandria Real Estate Equities. Novo Nordisk is leasing all of 60 Sylvan Road from Alexandria, in a deal announced in December.

Cambridge is home to the Bio Innovation Hub and corporate development offices, while Watertown is home to another Novo subsidiary, Forma Therapeutics, acquired in 2022 and focused on treatments for sickle cell disease and rare blood disorders.

Novo Nordisk has not disclosed the cost of the new hub. But it is one reason why the Danish biotech stepped up R&D spending in 2023. The company shelled out DKK 32.44 billion ($4.7 billion) last year, up 35% from DKK 24.05 billion (about $3.5 billion) in 2022.

“In Research and Early Development, we have two global hubs. We have a hub in Denmark, a legacy hub where most of our people are. And we have recently decided that the greater Boston area should be the second hub,” Petersen said.

Like the roughly 1,000 biopharma companies that do business in Greater Boston, Novo Nordisk aims to tap into the critical mass of researchers, executives, academic institutions, businesses, and investors that have transformed Greater Boston into a top-tier biopharma cluster.

“Need to be here”

Noting that “a predominant part of the biotech deals” take place in the Boston area, Petersen said, “We need to be here, because we need to continue to develop medicines for patients with serious chronic diseases.”

The region anchored by Boston and adjacent Cambridge, MA, has topped GEN’s nationally-quoted A-List of Top 10 U.S. Biopharma Clusters nine of the past 10 years—though last summer it was narrowly edged by the San Francisco Bay Area due to a dip in venture capital financing that saw fewer fundings to smaller companies.

Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy (D) is expected soon to release an economic development plan that includes more support for life sciences activity across the Commonweallth, dubbed “Life Sciences 3.0” by officials. That component will be an updated version of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative, first enacted with $1 billion in bond funding and tax credits by former Gov. Deval Patrick (D) in 2008 and renewed a decade later with $623 million in bond funding and tax credits by Healy’s predecessor, Charlie Baker (R).

Novo Nordisk is one of two companies that have successfully developed blockbuster drugs for metabolic indications in recent years; the other is Eli Lilly, whose Mounjaro® (tirzepatide) finished 2023 with $5.16 billion in sales, a tenfold increase on the $482.5 million generated in 2022. Mounjaro’s active ingredient is now also marketed for adults with obesity or who are overweight under the name Zepbound®—which has been projected to reach $1 billion in annual sales as soon as this year. Goldman Sachs projects that sales of obesity drugs will reach $100 billion by 2030. Barclays and Pfizer have offered similar sales forecasts.

Lilly is also increasing its presence in Greater Boston. Later this year, Lilly is expected to move its Institute for Genetic Medicine into Boston’s Fort Point section, specifically the 334,000-square-foot former New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) building at 15 Necco Street, a 12-story building Lilly is leasing from Alexandria. Construction is proceeding on the facility, whose cost Lilly had estimated at $700 million, with construction substantially completed in November.

“Blue sky” partnership

Novo Nordisk‘s first two staffers made their way to the region in 2018—Jacob Jeppsen, PhD, now CSO of Alveus Therapeutics, and Aaron Schwartz, now senior director of business development, pharma & biotech at Ginkgo Bioworks.

Marcus Schindler, Novo Nordisk executive vice president, research & early development and CSO

Marcus Schindler, who is now Novo’s executive vice president, research & early development and CSO, recalled at the Lexington celebration how he had joined the company that year as senior vice president for external innovation and strategy, with a mission of jumpstarting the company’s external R&D efforts through collaborations.

One early such effort emerged in Cambridge: A “blue sky” partnership between Novo Nordisk and the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, MA, funded over three years through a multi-million dollar sponsored research agreement from the company. The collaboration did not mandate any transfer of intellectual property or special rights to Novo Nordisk beyond the opportunity to enable research progress and discuss it directly with Whitehead scientists.

Jeppesen became a visiting scientist at the Whitehead Institute while Schwartz worked at the time as Novo’s director of search & evaluation, Global Drug Discovery.

“Two things we learned from this, and I really learned before even thinking about a broader Boston presence: One was the generosity shown toward us. The other was the curiosity from those scientists at the Whitehead to actually say, we’re doing really cool stuff. What about putting this science to work in diabetes or obesity or one of those big diseases that you guys are working on?”

Schindler spoke at a ceremony held by Novo Nordisk to mark completion of the U.S. hub. During his remarks, Schindler offered an explanation for Novo’s generous Whitehead collaboration: While the company trades its stock publicly on Nasdaq Copenhagen and the New York Stock Exchange, control of Novo Nordisk is held by the independent Novo Nordisk Foundation, which holds 77.1% of votes and 28.1% of company shares.

Those shares have leaped 67.5% over the past year—to DKK 834.10 ($120.84) on Wednesday from DKK 498.10 ($72.16) a year earlier—as sales of Novo Nordisk’s metabolic blockbusters have surged on demand that is driven significantly by celebrity use, confirmed or otherwise.

In addition to shielding the company from takeovers, Schindler said, foundation control offers Novo Nordisk a clinical and commercial advantage: “We can afford the long view, the stamina, the resilience, the vision to actually work on disease areas where others don’t, or they walk away.”

Obesity is a prime example, Schindler said. Novo’s blockbuster glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) Ozempic® (semaglutide) won FDA approval in 2017, five years after it was developed as a once-weekly therapy for type 2 diabetes. GLP-1 was first described as binding to receptors in the brain by researchers at Japan’s Tokushima University School of Medicine in 1987, and in the pancreas by investigators at German’s University of Göttingen a year later.

Noting that the journal Science named GLP-1 drugs its 2023 Breakthrough of the Year, Schindler added: “Except it was obviously a breakthrough that was 25 years in the making.”

Golden ticket

“This long-term view is I think really, really important for us,” Schindler said. And that hopefully also transcends all the partnerships that we have, that we’re not after quick fixes but actually building slowly pieces that persist.”

Novo Nordisk first publicly promoted its presence in the region in 2019, evoking the Willy Wonka movies by issuing an open call for promising startups companies to submit non-confidential proposals to the company. The winners received a “Golden Ticket” to space at the LabCentral accelerator in Cambridge, MA.

“We started sponsoring LabCentral with a few hundred thousand dollars… a lot of money at the time,” Schindler recalled. “We started to mentor. We gave advice, we helped people along their journey no strings attached, just to say we’re here, we’re here to help. And those were our first steps.”

A group of Novo Nordisk scientists, physicians, engineers, and other business leaders arrived in Cambridge in 2020, despite the difficulties imposed by COVID-19 travel restrictions. A year later, Novo Nordisk launched its Bio Innovation Hub, designed to connect startups with the company’s deep knowledge of disease and a century of translational and drug development capabilities, with the goal of accelerating development of new therapies based on innovative ideas.

Novo Nordisk doubled down on the region in 2021, when it shelled out $3.3 billion to acquire Dicerna. The deal—which gave Novo a physical presence in Lexington—capped a three-year partnership that began when the companies launched an up-to-$3.8 billion collaboration to discover and develop RNAi therapies using Dicerna’s GalXC™ RNAi platform technology.

“With that acquisition came a strategic intent to develop Boston as a hub, meaning adding full end-to-end R&D capabilities, value chain capabilities,” Petersen said. The acquisitions of Dicerna and later Forma Therapeutics enabled Novo “to being able to address more significantly intracellular targets, expanding the target space from about 5,000 extracellular targets to about 25,000 targets, including some 21,000 intracellular targets,” Petersen said.

Beyond proteins and peptides

The Dicerna and Forma deals also expanded Novo Nordisk’s pipeline beyond its traditional mainstays of proteins and peptides. Dicerna enabled a move into RNAi, while Forma focused on small molecules.

Novo Nordisk won’t say which targets are driving growth in RNAi and gene therapy. However, for the diseases within Novo Nordisk’s therapeutic areas—diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular and rare blood diseases—adding more modality options means “we can go after the right targets for the right reasons, instead of being more limited by the technical modalities that we had at hand before we acquired Dicerna and Forma,” Petersen said.

Dicerna and Forma continue today as wholly owned subsidiaries of Novo Nordsk. Forma remains in Watertown while Dicerna has become part of the Global Nucleic Acid Therapies team. Dicerna’s RNAi, gene therapy, and gene editing R&D capabilities are in Lexington, while manufacturing/early development operations including technical operations/chemistry manufacturing and controls (CMC) for oligonucleotides and RNAi therapeutics are based in Boulder, CO.

“We can use the right tools to find the right targets, and we can also maybe go after several different modalities for the same target, because every time you start something, there’s a very low percentage chance that you are going to succeed,” Petersen added. “The more modalities and technological platforms you can apply to drug a given target, the higher chance you have of success at the end of the day.”

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