Third Rock Looks to Fight Fat in a New Way, With Ember Therapeutics

Xconomy Boston — 

Obesity is one of the biggest public health problems of the 21st century, and now a Boston biotech startup is looking to fight it in an unorthodox way. The bet at Ember Therapeutics is that it can coax the body to burn off some of that unwanted fat.

The company is emerging from stealth mode today with a $34 million Series A financing from Boston-based Third Rock Ventures. The idea is to make drugs that take advantage of some of the new understanding about “brown fat,” a type of tissue that helps mammals to burn off the more familiar “white fat” tissue that stores excess energy. The company has recruited some big name advisors from the brown fat field, including Bruce Spiegelman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Patrick Griffin of The Scripps Research Institute in Florida, and Ron Kahn of the Joslin Diabetes Center.

Ember (not to be confused with the Boston wireless sensor network firm with that name) is being born during a rough time for the obesity drug business, as public companies like Arena Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ARNA), Orexigen Therapeutics (NASDAQ: OREX), and Vivus (NASDAQ: VVUS) have all failed to win FDA approval for new weight loss drugs. Regulators have often cited underwhelming effectiveness, along with various safety concerns for pills that have potential to be taken by millions of people with a condition that isn’t immediately life-threatening. But obesity does lead to a wide variety of expensive, chronic health problems like diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and depression. The potential market for an effective new weight loss drug is huge, as an estimated one-third of U.S. adults are obese and another one-third are considered overweight.

Lou Tartaglia

Third Rock’s bet is that it can come up with a more effective alternative through this new biology that seeks to help people burn off excess calories, rather than more traditional approaches that seek to work on the central nervous system by suppressing appetite.

“We can’t wait to get going,” says Third Rock partner Lou Tartaglia, the interim CEO of Ember.

Scientists have long known that newborns have a lot of brown fat, which is loaded with mitochondria that expend energy, and release heat to keep them warm. Most of this tissue disappears as people grow up, and adults begin to accumulate more “white fat” which stores excess energy from food we eat. But recent discoveries using positron emission tomography (PET) scans have shown that adults do retain some small amounts of brown fat tissue (usually along the back) which sends signals to burn excess white fat, Tartaglia says.

What’s interesting from a pharmaceutical perspective is that scientists have now identified biologic pathways that suggest it could be possible to “recruit and augment” the brown fat tissue that’s already operating in the body, Tartaglia says. Ember, which takes its name from … Next Page »

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