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This is part of a series about new obesity drugs that are transforming patients’ lives, dividing medical experts, and spurring one of the biggest business battles in years. Read more about The Obesity Revolution.

For nearly a decade, Novartis aggressively pursued a drug candidate for muscle disorders, testing it on people with chronic inflammation, elderly people with frailty, hip surgery patients, and other groups.


Time and again, the trials failed to show that the drug, bimagrumab, led to a significant enough improvement in patients’ physical function. But researchers noticed something else: The patients lost body fat.

In 2017, Novartis decided to run one more trial in people with obesity and diabetes. It found the drug caused an average loss of 21% in fat mass and also a 4% gain in lean mass — a combination that had not been seen before in any weight loss drug.

Despite the findings, Novartis set bimagrumab up for sale. Even though investors were flocking to the biotech sector, the obesity field was a drug development desert, with investment actually dropping, according to data from PitchBook. Weight loss treatments had a checkered history of being ineffective or unsafe, and the few that did make it to market were commercial flops.

But Joe Jimenez, the CEO of Novartis through much of bimagrumab’s development, and some other ex-Novartis employees saw potential. They launched a new startup called Versanis Bio to license the drug in 2021.

Now, as the new weight loss drug Wegovy surges in popularity and turns the industry’s focus back on obesity, Versanis sees potential for bimagrumab to become a key contender in the obesity market and leapfrog competitors with its ability to build muscle.


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