Novartis Cuts ‘Unique’ Obesity Drug After Poor Phase II Results


Pictured: Building with Novartis name and logo/iStock, TBE

Novartis has dropped drug development of MBL949, its high-risk, high-reward obesity drug, after disappointing Phase II results.

The announcement came without fanfare, included as just a single line in its second-quarter financial update, with the company saying: “GFD-15 discontinued due to lack of efficacy.” GDF-15 plays a significant role in insulin secretion and is a therapeutic target in treating diabetes complications, with mixed results. In 2020, for example, Eli Lilly recently kiboshed a study of a GDF-15 receptor agonist, Johnson & Johnson seemed to have more success, licensing an analog of GDF-15 for external development the following year.

Novartis has been tight-lipped about how MBL949’s actually works. CEO Vas Narasimhan has previously only called it a “unique mechanism of action.” Talking with investors in February, he described the drug program as being high-risk, but high-reward, saying that encouraging Phase II results, which was testing “the safety, tolerability, efficacy, and pharmacokinetics” of the drug in obese patients with and without type 2 diabetes, could open up significant opportunities..

Novartis also announced in its second-quarter update that it is terminating a Phase Ⅲ trial of its TGFB inhibitor, NIS793, for metastatic pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, saying the decision was based on a “benefit-risk assessment.” That drug will continue to be tested as a treatment for colorectal cancer in a Phase II study, however.

In its second-quarter update, the company also announced a 100% spinoff of Sandoz, a division of Novartis focused on generic pharmaceuticals and biosimilars. The company is also eyeing an acquisition of Chinook Therapeutics, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company specializing in kidney diseases, for $3.2 billion upfront.

These updates come in an already busy month for Novartis. The company ended an agreement with BeiGene on July 11 to develop an anti-TIGIT checkpoint inhibitor, ocipermilab. Novartis paid $300 upfront million in 2021 for the deal, and BeiGene would’ve been eligible for another $700 million had Novartis exercised its option.

Less than a week later, Novartis announced it would be acquiring San Diego-based DTx Pharma in a $1 billion deal, as part of its efforts to expand its neuroscience pipeline. The deal includes additional payments up to another $500 million should certain milestones be hit.

Connor Lynch is a freelance writer based in Ottawa, Canada. Reach him at

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