By Ludwig Burger and Maggie Fick
(Reuters) -AstraZeneca placed a potential $2 billion bet on the booming anti-obesity drug market on Thursday, licensing an experimental pill from China’s Eccogene that it believes could cause fewer side effects than current injectable treatments.
Chief Executive Pascal Soriot acknowledged on a media call that his company was “a few years behind” the runaway success of Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s rival drug that was approved by U.S. and UK regulators on Wednesday.
“But we are working on the next wave of products”, he said, noting – without giving a source for the statistic – that about three-quarters of patients prefer a pill over an injection.
He said Eccogene’s drug – called ECC5004 and only in the first of three stages of clinical trials – was rapidly absorbed and so didn’t stay in the stomach for long. That could reduce side-effects such as nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting and abdominal pain associated with Novo and Lilly’s weight-loss drugs.
Soriot added that more than one billion people globally are overweight or obese. AstraZeneca ultimately aims to reach people in emerging markets with the once-daily pill, in addition to developed markets, he said.
The Anglo-Swedish group is paying $185 million upfront to license the treatment from Eccogene, plus up to $1.825 billion depending on clinical, regulatory, and commercial progress.
ECC5004 is part of a class of highly effective weight-loss medicines known as GLP-1 receptor agonists currently dominated by Novo and Lilly. These drugs mimic a hormone produced in the gut that regulates blood sugar and appetite.
The deal, and Soriot’s comments, are the latest indication of the insatiable demand for anti-obesity drugs that catapulted Novo this year to become Europe’s most valuable company.
AstraZeneca, best known for its cancer drugs and COVID vaccine, said ECC5004 had shown promise in the first phase of clinical trials and it would be developed to treat obesity, type-2 diabetes and other cardiometabolic conditions.
Soriot said Phase II trials would start “over the next few months”.
He said he expected the cost of producing the drug to be lower than the injection drugs due to its chemistry. He referred to the fact that ECC5004 is a small molecule compound, meaning it can be more easily produced than the complex injectable peptides that are the basis of Novo’s Wegovy and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound, which is also known as Mounjaro or tirzepatide.
“Therefore we expect also we can reach out to a much broader pool of patients around the world,” including low and middle income countries and China, where AstraZeneca has a strong presence, he added.
AstraZeneca has already entered the race for a next generation of weight-loss drugs.
Also in the first phase of clinical trials, it has been testing a potential obesity drug based on the gastrointestinal hormone amylin, as well as a once-weekly injection that is based on two modes of action including GLP-1.
Soriot said the company hoped the amylin hormone could be combined with GLP-1s to achieve higher weight loss than current drugs, and with a focus on losing fat instead of muscle.
The company earlier this year scrapped two GLP-1 drug candidates, one for type 2 diabetes non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, after disappointing trial results.
(Reporting by Ludwig Burger and Yadarisa ShabongEditing by Jason Neely and Mark Potter)