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Metsera, a well-funded obesity drug startup, sees chance to challenge Lilly, Novo

Dive Brief:

  • Metsera, a richly funded biotechnology startup, launched Thursday with a portfolio of weight loss drugs the company claims could eventually compete with market-leading medicines from Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly.
  • In its first official announcement, the biotech, whose existence was revealed by Endpoints News earlier this month, said it has two therapies in clinical testing already. Another “handful” could join in the next year, CEO Clive Meanwell said in an interview.
  • The biotech has raised $290 million in funding, led by co-founding investment firms Arch Venture Partners and Population Health Partners. It’s already used some of that cash to build a drug portfolio of oral and injectable drugs as well as prospects that simultaneously target multiple gut hormones.

Dive Insight:

Like many others in the industry, Meanwell was struck by the success of Lilly’s Mounjaro and Novo’s Wegovy, which proved so effective in testing that their makers have struggled to keep up with demand.

Analysts now project a market worth more than $100 billion, a prize that’s sparked a gold rush among large and small companies to follow in Lilly’s and Novo’s footsteps.

Meanwell, an industry veteran who sold his last company to Novartis for nearly $10 billion, also acknowledged the high bar set by Mounjaro and Wegovy. Developing equivalently effective drugs is the “table stakes” for any aspiring competitors, he said.

With the help of Arch and the venture firm, Population Health, that he chairs, Meanwell put together an investor syndicate, raised an unusually large bankroll, and used it to scour the globe for weight loss therapies. The goal was to create a startup that could “go after the second, third, or even fourth generation” of obesity medicines — the ones that might eventually supplant Mounjaro and Wegovy, he said.

“The first generation of products are a godsend,” said Arch managing director Kristina Burow. But people “are going to need different drugs” to cut weight without also losing muscle mass or dealing with side effects, she added. “There is room for more than two players.”

Metsera wants to become one with a portfolio strategy that most companies outside of Lilly and Novo aren’t pursuing, according to Meanwell. With the $290 million it raised, the company acquired U.K.-based biotech Zihipp and formed a licensing pact with Korean drugmaker D&D Pharmatech. The former deal gave it a library of drug prospects targeting different gut hormones. The latter involved a technology capable of making oral versions of those drugs. The company’s done other smaller deals as well, but Meanwell wouldn’t provide specifics.

The resulting pipeline includes an injectable GLP-1 drug like Wegovy with a prospect that, like Lilly’s experimental retatrutide, targets three gut hormones. Metsera also has a two-pronged medicine that stimulates amylin and so-called calcitonin receptors as well as multiple oral candidates.

The company views these, as well as other undisclosed programs, as the components of potential drug combinations. According to Meanwell, animal studies have suggested some of Metsera’s medicines may have superior characteristics — such as longer-lasting effects — than existing drugs.

That hasn’t yet been proven, though, and Metsera may have to catch more advanced competitors to succeed. Phase 1 trials are underway for its GLP-1 drug as well as a second candidate. Others will follow shortly, with multiple study results coming later this year and early next.

“If everything stopped today, if all we had were the existing products on the market, we would have made a tremendous impact,” Burow said. “But because we’re biotech, we want to do more. We want to go farther.”