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Novo Nordisk expands cell therapy R&D, says type 1 diabetes cure a step closer

Company has reached milestone in stem cell therapy as it looks to broaden range beyond diabetes

Novo Nordisk

Novo Nordisk has unveiled an increased investment in stem cell-based therapies and an expansion beyond its current focus on type 1 diabetes into other serious chronic diseases.

The Copenhagen, Denmark-based company is one of the world’s biggest producers of insulin products and other diabetes treatments, with these products accounting for most of its $17.5bn annual sales.

Now it says it has reached a milestone in the development of a stem cell therapy which replaces the beta cells missing in type 1 diabetes patients - bringing it one step closer to a cure which could one day free patients from their dependence on insulin.

This would of course be the ultimate ‘disruptive innovation’ for Novo Nordisk and its business, but the company says it wants to be at the forefront of this expected breakthrough.

"Finding a cure for diabetes is part of Novo Nordisk's vision and recent progress in our stem cell research and the access to robust and high-quality cell lines raises hopes for people with type 1 diabetes,” said Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, Novo Nordisk’s executive vice president and chief science officer.

Novo says it has reached a milestone in producing high-quality stem cells lines for transplantation through its partnership with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

Thomsen added: “Our collaboration with UCSF is also expected to accelerate current and future partnerships to develop stem cell-based therapies for treatment of other serious chronic diseases.”

Funding in the wider field of cell and gene therapies is now increasing rapidly, with groundbreaking CAR-T products and Spark's Luxturna reaching the market. Competitors in the stem cell therapy for type 1 diabetes field include Semma Therapeutics, a Boston, Mass-based biotech.

Novo Nordisk has licensed a technology from UCSF to enable the generation of good manufacturing practice (GMP) compliant human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines as well as rights to further develop these into future regenerative medicine therapies.

The partners have just opened a new GMP laboratory at UCSF where employees from the university and the company will work together on deriving the cell lines. They say these will achieve a better-than-ever quality, and enable a breakthrough in using stem cell-based therapies.

Novo Nordisk says that after two decades of intensive research focusing on the differentiation of pluripotent stem cells into insulin-producing beta cells, it has now achieved preclinical proof-of-concept. The firm has worked with another US university, Cornell in New York, to develop an encapsulation device to deliver transplanted beta cells into patients and protect them from attack by the immune system.

The first clinical trial could begin within the next few years.

The company is also working with Swedish biotech Biolamina and Lund University, with research underway to develop stem cell-based treatments for Parkinson's disease.

For another partnership with Biolamina and the DUKE National University Singapore Medical School, the research focus is on chronic heart failure and age-related macular degeneration.

The company has made its goal of expanding beyond diabetes clear with its recent failed bid to acquire biotech Ablynx.

It is likely to stay on the look-out for more mid-sized acquisitions to boost its revenues as US payers squeeze profits in the diabetes market.

16th May 2018



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