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Novo Nordisk builds R&D capacity in cardiovascular and liver diseases

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Known for their work in diabetes, Novo Nordisk switches gears to treat cardiovascular disease and the liver disease nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.

The Denmark-based pharmaceutical company that is synonymous with innovative insulin products is leveraging its diabetes expertise to develop treatments for cardiovascular disease and for the liver disease nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. It is hiring scientists and physicians experienced in these areas.

Novo Nordisk has a nearly 100-year history of studying, developing, improving, and supplying diabetes medications, beginning with insulin. The company has more than 42,000 employees globally, affiliates in 79 countries, and R&D centers in India, China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Denmark. Novo Nordisk is guided by its Triple Bottom Line principle of financially, socially, and environmentally responsible business. The value of this principle is clear: In the 2017 Science Top Employers Survey, life science employees around the world ranked Novo Nordisk among the best workplaces. The company performed particularly well in social responsibility.

Novo Nordisk is seeking researchers and physicians for R&D on treatments for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Knowledge of immunology and inflammation, gastroenterology, and endocrinology is also valued. This article gives an overview of specialties that are in need of colleagues with relevant expertise, described by Kirstine Brown-Frandsen, corporate vice president, Global Medical Affairs; Anne Bloch Thomsen, vice president, Medical and Science; and Karin Conde-Knape, corporate vice president, Cardiovascular and Liver Diseases Research.

Opportunities in CVD and NASH

Anne Bloch Thomsen

Photo courtesy of Novo Nordisk A/S

Doing R&D on CVD and NASH is a natural move for Novo Nordisk. “We’re known for our global leadership in diabetes, and the areas we’re expanding into are adjacent,” says Bloch Thomsen. CVD and NASH are both linked to type 2 diabetes; for example, obesity, insulin resistance, and other factors are associated with all three conditions. These connections, together with clinical trial findings on glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) analogs, a class of diabetes drugs made by Novo Nordisk and others, suggest that the company’s expertise is relevant to these additional chronic diseases.

GLP-1 analogs are proven to lower blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes. Reports that GLP-1 analogs positively affect weight, inflammation, and blood lipids, along with requests from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for data on how GLP-1 analogs affect CVD, prompted additional studies. The landmark Liraglutide Effect and Action in Diabetes: Evaluation of Cardiovascular Outcome Results (LEADER) clinical trial showed that a GLP-1 analog reduces risk of heart attacks, strokes, and CVD-related death in people with diabetes. Subsequently, the FDA approved the medication for CVD-related indications for patients with type 2 diabetes. Results from investigator-sponsored trials and Novo Nordisk’s clinical trials support more research on the effects of these drugs on patients with NASH, for which no medications are approved. “We need effective therapies for treating NASH,” Brown-Frandsen says. “It’s a disease that raises multiple risks for patients. It increases CVD risk and can lead to cirrhosis, requiring a liver transplant. It is a serious condition!”

Additional clinical trials of GLP-1-based drugs are ongoing, but based on early findings, Novo Nordisk is committing major resources to CVD and NASH R&D. In 2018, Conde-Knape moved from London to Copenhagen for a newly created position in cardiovascular and liver diseases research. She is now hiring for her team of preclinical drug researchers, who will take drug ideas to clinical trials, acting as the scientific anchors in drug discovery and development projects.

Doing R&D on CVD and NASH is a natural move for Novo Nordisk.

Conde-Knape is seeking senior-level scientists with research expertise and wide-ranging knowledge about NASH or CVD, especially atherosclerosis, heart failure, and related areas such as immunology or inflammation as they pertain to cardiovascular and liver diseases. An understanding of how research knowledge is translated to the clinic is essential. “I’m looking for people with deep understanding of the science behind the diseases, who are also committed to developing new treatments to meet patients’ needs,” she says.

Karin Conde-Knape

Photo courtesy of Novo Nordisk A/S

People in Conde-Knape’s group must be comfortable working with external collaborators such as biotech companies, contract research organizations, and academic partners as well as multidisciplinary teams. Responsibilities of team members include giving scientific input on strategic decisions, suggesting new research areas, and acting as the industry counterpart to external partners, connecting them to experts at Novo Nordisk.

Conde-Knape’s team is starting by identifying patient groups with high risk for NASH and CVD. They are also researching biomarkers and measures of disease risk, progression, and treatment response. From there, they will use animal models, tissue samples, databases, and other tools to identify and study pathways and mechanisms that are potential drug targets, eventually moving to drug development and proof-of-concept studies.

Conde-Knape is open to new ideas, methods, and hypotheses, for example, about novel pathways with human relevance that can be explored for potential new drug targets. “If people know of untapped research areas we could explore using our resources,” she says, “I’m open to suggestions, as long as the evidence connects them to human disease.”

Promising drug candidates will be moved through clinical trials by Bloch Thomsen’s department in Denmark. “We’re developing and testing new drugs with novel structures and modes of action within cardiovascular and metabolic disease, obesity, and NASH,” she says. She is seeking physician-scientists with NASH-related experience, for example, in hepatology and the development of biomarkers or imaging tests. Experience with clinical trials is a plus. “It’s a particularly exciting time at Novo Nordisk,” she says, “because the company is committed to making progress in these new areas, including developing drugs with new modes of action.”

Novo Nordisk is unusual among pharmaceutical companies in conducting many of its own clinical trials, including in the early stages, Bloch Thomsen says. This gives the company’s physician-scientists a unique opportunity to experience and contribute to activities from preclinical development through clinical trials, collaborating cross-functionally with colleagues in regulatory affairs, pharmacovigilance, medical affairs, and other areas.

Global medical affairs is Brown-Frandsen’s realm. “You can say that we’re the ears and voice of the company,” she says. “We’re out in the community listening to physicians who tell us about their experiences and clinical needs. We disseminate our science communications to scientific and medical communities around the world.” Her team also has discussions with local regulatory agencies and third-party payers, she says.

Kirstine Brown-Frandsen

Photo courtesy of Novo Nordisk A/S

Because CVD and NASH are new areas for Novo Nordisk, Brown-Frandsen says she needs doctors with recent clinical experience of these conditions. People on her team in Denmark and Bangalore must know the clinical issues of these diseases so that study designs address and measure factors important for physicians and patients. Physicians in her group must understand the mechanism of action, pharmacology, and rationale behind new drugs and be able to interpret and present data to scientific and medical communities. In addition, she says, “I want people who are curious and get a kick out of the science.”

Why Novo Nordisk?

Conde-Knape, a recent recruit to Novo Nordisk, was attracted by the opportunity to build a new R&D area from the ground up, using company resources and existing knowledge, and also leveraging the external landscape. Scientists who join her team at Novo Nordisk in Denmark, she says, “have a chance to shape the decisions, directions, scientific agenda, and strategies of the company’s CVD and NASH work, and contribute to the company’s growth.”

Bloch Thomsen notes that Novo Nordisk offers career development benefits that academic scientists or physicians working in clinics and hospitals might not get. Opportunities include professional coaching, testing to identify personal strengths and weaknesses, and training for working in project teams and giving effective presentations. Working at Novo Nordisk presents almost “unlimited opportunities,” Brown-Frandsen says. Guided by individual development plans, employees are encouraged to find where their skills and interests best suit the company, with many possibilities available to them, including clinical operations, pharmacovigilance, or epidemiology.

The new opportunities are “a bit of serendipity,” Brown-Frandsen says. “We developed GLP-1 analogs to lower glucose, then realized from physicians and patients that the drugs were changing their lives, with weight, lipids, inflammation, and CVD markers all moving in the right direction. “I had hoped to be part of changing outcomes and doing something for the health of people with diabetes outside of just controlling their blood glucose,” Brown-Frandsen says. “And now we’re doing it. That’s what makes the work meaningful.”

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