The ideal platform to fight a silent pandemic

Reflecting on Lumen’s new collaboration with Novo Nordisk

Brian Finrow
4 min readJun 16, 2021


By Brian Finrow and Jim Roberts

Logos of Novo Nordisk and Lumen Bioscience.
Logos of Novo Nordisk and Lumen Bioscience.

Today Lumen announced a new collaboration with Novo Nordisk to explore new treatments for cardiometabolic diseases. We couldn’t be more thrilled.

Cardiometabolic disease — a cluster of related conditions that includes obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease — afflicts hundreds of millions of people worldwide, and the associated health and economic burdens continue to grow.

Novo Nordisk is the global leader in cardiometabolic disease by a significant margin. Conveniently, it has a building full of world-beating obesity researchers just acrossLake Union from Lumen here in Seattle. Meanwhile on our side of the lake, Lumen is known mainly for its lead programs targeting gastrointestinal infections treatable with edible monoclonal antibodies. Lumen’s programs are commercially feasible for the first time due to the astonishing productivity of our unique biomanufacturing host, spirulina, which we’ve written about at length.

So how do the pieces fit together for this current collaboration?

To begin with, it’s well-known that the brain and metabolic system have ways of monitoring goings-on in the GI tract. For example, the feeling of satiety — or ‘fullness’ — is far more nuanced than the button-popping physical sensation that follows Thanksgiving dinner. A lot of information is being conveyed, but it’s only recently that tools were developed that have begun to describe the underlying biological pathways at the molecular level.

Novo is at the forefront of this research, and scientists have been making steady progress in recent years. To no one’s surprise, it turns out to be incredibly complicated. All the more so when the commensal bacteria get involved. Some putative targets that can be hit with biologics have been around for a while in the scientific literature, but drug developers lacked a scalable manufacturing system. These targets provide an obvious starting point. But new targets are also emerging at an accelerating pace. In light of all that complexity, we leapt at the opportunity to collaborate with the field’s leading researchers there at Novo.

But Lumen doesn’t come emptyhanded: our unique ability to develop and deliver orally delivered biologics may be the key to unlocking the next generation of drugs in this field. It’s easy to understand why: cardiometabolic disease is a widespread, chronic problem. Tackling it will likely involve delivering the drugs over long periods of time. This means that extraordinary safety will be expected. Orally delivered biologics are ideal for this, both for their exquisite specificity (which lowers the risk of interaction with unintended host cell receptors) and also because most therapeutic proteins are too large for systemic absorption (further reducing the risk of off-target toxicities). This of course is Lumen’s specialty.

Moreover, obesity is one of the most prevalent diseases in the world today, and the problem is growing at horrific rates in developing countries. Even rich-world healthcare systems would not be able to afford these drugs if they were priced like most new biopharma offerings in the 10s of thousands of dollars per year. And traditional batch-fermentation manufacturing could never hope to make enough product to meet demand even if they could afford it. Lumen’s platform provides a low-cost, scalable pathway to treating large patient populations — perfect for tackling prevalent diseases like obesity.

Today’s news comes right on the heels of FDA’s approval of Novo’s weekly injection drug Wegovy (semaglutide), originally approved for diabetes, for chronic weight loss. This is the FDA’s first such approval for chronic weight management since 2014. This certainly feels like a significant advance for the growing numbers of people worldwide who suffer from obesity. Still, there’s room for improvement: needle fear remains a significant barrier for many (although Novo is already working on an oral formulation). So despite the positive news about Wegovy, there’s no doubt that significant unmet medical needs will remain.

The advantages of GI-confined biologic drugs — safety, scalability, and pricing flexibility — fit Lumen’s mission perfectly, and we’re excited to take this step forward with Novo.

Brian Finrow is cofounder and CEO of Lumen Bioscience; Jim Roberts is Lumen’s cofounder and Chief Scientific Officer.

Photo from Lumen’s office patio showing Novo Nordisk’s Seattle research labs in the background (arrow).



Brian Finrow

Jim and I started Lumen Bioscience in 2017 to develop and commercialize ultra-low-cost biologics.