Uruguayan and Argentine scientists develop new drug in obesity fight

12.02.20

Universidad ORT Uruguay graduate Pía Garat is part of a team developing a drug to combat 21st century epidemics such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. This fascinating article from Argentine daily newspaper La Nacion charts their efforts (in Spanish). The story is translated into English here:

Silicon Valley is being set up in Sunchales, a town of 30,000 inhabitants in the heart of the Santa Fe dairy basin in Argentina. But instead of software, the cutting-edge discipline is biotechnology.

There, an Argentine-Uruguayan company called Eolo Pharma is developing a novel drug to combat 21st century epidemics such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.

It is a molecule of chemical synthesis, which “improves the lipid profile and prevents insulin resistance, avoiding the metabolic complications of obesity,” explains Pía Garat, one of the founders of Eolo Pharma and a biotechnology engineer graduate from the University ORT Uruguay in Montevideo.

The new molecule attacks a common pattern in metabolic diseases: the inflammatory process.

“We have an innovative approach because we develop drugs by molecular hybridization. That is, combine known drugs with molecules that we chemically modify to have unconventional anti-inflammatory properties,” explains Carlos Batthyány, co-founder of Eolo and director of the Pasteur Institute of Uruguay.

In this way, a drug is obtained that, “against an excess of calorie intake, increases the production of body heat and prevents its accumulation in the form of fat,” Batthyány explains from Montevideo, where the project laboratory works, while in Sunchales the business part is developed.

Until now, the compound was tested in mice and showed that “despite eating diets rich in sugars and fats, the animals tested kept their glucose and lipid levels normal, and did not gain weight,” says Garat.

The drug “could be used both preventatively and in the treatment of obesity and overweight, since it avoids the ‘rebound effect’ that dieters have, when they leave it and recover in a short time the kilos they had lost,” details Batthyány.

The history of this venture began 10 years ago with a group of scientists from the Faculty of Chemistry of the University of the Republic and the Pasteur Institute of Uruguay, led by Carlos Batthyány, who were investigating new molecules.

Pía Garat, a member of the team, learned about the call for innovative companies and presented the project in 2016. She was selected from more than 200 applications.

Thus, the following year she crossed “the puddle” to settle with her husband and little baby, first in Rafaela, and then in Sunchales, a place she loves “because everything is close,” says the Uruguayan entrepreneur.

The company has its offices in the city and access to a network of mentoring and coworking along with eight other technology-based ventures.

According to WHO data, 40 percent of the world’s population is overweight and 14 percent are obese, while some 800 million people suffer from type II diabetes (closely related to life habits).

In Argentina, according to the latest survey of risk factors, 60 percent of the population is overweight and 25 per cent are obese.

“It’s a real social problem,” says Julio Montero, nutritionist and president of the Argentine Society of Obesity and Eating Disorders. And he details that “we are mortgaging the future because we have 10 percent obesity in children under 10 years”.

“A new medication to combat this scourge would be very welcome,” says Montero, although he warns that “although there are many contributing factors, the cause of the obesity epidemic we are facing has to do with food. And that is where we have to attack the problem.”

The treatment of obesity and being overweight requires a change of habits. “And while this is achieved, medication can help. But the fundamental thing is to improve the feeding model, which today is very bad because of excess and lack of quality,” says the doctor.

The development of Eolo Pharma is being patented in the United States, Japan and Europe. Although five or six years of clinical trials are still to come, the pre-clinical trial phase (in laboratory and with animals) concluded successfully last year.

Eolo Pharma got its first seed investment by Cites – which funds technological innovation – along with a joint venture of the Scientific Accelerators program of the Argentinian state. At the end of last year, she obtained new investment from the international Ficus Capital group, for US $2.7 million.

Defined as a start-up that researches and develops new compounds, the young company is studying three families of molecules designed to prevent and treat metabolic disorders and cardiovascular diseases related to inflammation.

The molecule that “attacks” obesity and diabetes II is the most advanced and if the clinical trial stage (with people) is successful, before the end of this decade it could become a global medicine.