GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) and Vanderbilt University are teaming up to develop new obesity treatments.

The new partners have set an aggressive timeline. The goal is to take compounds into phase I clinical trials within three years. Vanderbilt will handle pharmacology and pre-clinical testing while GSK scientists will try to develop chemically similar compounds that have better activity and efficacy.

The partnership builds on research from Vanderbilt’s labs. Roger Cone, chair of Vanderbilt’s Department of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics, discovered the receptor melanocortin-4, or MC4-R. This receptor balances food intake and energy expenditure as well as body weight. Cone’s research showed the receptor’s potential in addressing obesity.

Cone and his colleagues have identified drug-like compounds called positive allosteric modulators, or PAMS, that “gently increase” MC4-R’s activity. That work was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The deal calls for GSK to provide an undisclosed amount of research support to Vanderbilt for three years. The university could also receive additional milestone and royalty payments, depending on the progress of the project. Cone’s lab will continue to be supported by an NIH grant.

Vanderbilt’s agreement with GSK is the second that the big pharma company has signed with a U.S. institution under its Discovery Partnerships with Academia program. The program brings GSK’s drug discovery expertise to academic scientists.

London-based GSK has its U.S. headquarters in Research Triangle Park. 

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