Weight control products constitute a $50 billion market in the United States, and the food and beverage industry is under pressure to help solve the obesity problem. But most obesity therapies try to diminish appetite, which is difficult to do, says Kathleen P. Mullinix, CEO of a Rutgers spinoff, WellGen: “Whereas inhibiting fat cells is very promising.”

WellGen hopes to control the growth of fat cells with its new citrus-extract. If this sounds like a spurious late-night television ad, think again. Any of WellGen’s products will go on the market only after double-blind clinical trials. “Our hallmark is to use natural substances and neutriceuticals for health benefits and to have very substantial scientific data,” says Mullinix. “There is so much noise out there, with claims not substantiated with data.”

WellGen has two-late stage programs. (The other program uses black tea to fight inflammation found in arthritis and heart disease). Mullinix hopes to start clinical trials on the obesity product in the next several months. Mullinix declines to reveal the formula of the citrus extract, but early reports of WellGen products cited phytochemicals that were found in orange peel, black tea, licorice, and cranberries. With eight full-time employees, WellGen supports research at labs all over the world. Some of the gene screening for the obesity product was done by HMGene, a participant in last week’s NJTC Venture Fair. Based at the New Jersey Technology Center in North Brunswick, HMGene screens WellGen’s food and dietary ingredients against its own “anti-obesity” panel of genes that it believes are involved in fat cell development. Products that result will be commercialized by WellGen.

WellGen has raised $8 million, chiefly from Amphion Innovations, and it is starting another funding round. In the next two months Mullinix plans to move the firm from the Rutgers Center for Advanced Food Technology to a nearby 3,200-square foot lab/office space that will accommodate 25 workers. Mullinix says she plans for the company to go public “in a year or so,” depending on the market and the results of the clinical trials.

Mullinix succeeded CEO David Evans, who died at age 54 from an infection triggered by a tick bite. She grew up in Boston, where her father was a government worker and her mother a teacher. After graduating from District of Columbia-based Trinity College in 1965, she earned a PhD in chemical biology from Columbia, and did a post-doc at Harvard. Very early in the history of biotechs, in 1981, she launched Columbia’s biotech technology transfer program, and this program is now one of the most successful in the country. Then she founded, and took public, Synaptic Pharmaceutical Corp. She has three grown sons.

Evans died last June, and Mullinix — who had previously spoken with the board chairman, Richard Laster, on the general topic of neutriceuticals — was tapped for the CEO’s job a couple of month’s later. “New Brunswick seemed like a long way from Manhattan,” she says, “but I thought the people were really interesting and smart.”

Obesity has been both under-treated and under-acknowledged, says Mullinix. “At Synaptic, we did work on obesity in 1993, but not until 1995 did the FDA acknowledge that obesity is a disease.”

WellGen Inc., 63 Dudley Road, New Brunswick 08901-8520; 732-214-8834; fax, 732-214-8856. Kathleen P. Mullinix PhD, CEO and president. www.wellgen.com

HMgene, 675 Route 1, NJ Technology Center, North Brunswick 08902; 732-246-5520; fax, 732-246-5338. Kiran Chada, chief scientific officer. www.hmgene.com