On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said a new version of popular diabetes medicine, called semaglutide, could be used as a weight-loss drug.
The agency approved a higher-dose version of the drug for long-term weight management.
Available under the brand name Wegovy, semaglutide is developed by Novo Nordisk, a Danish multinational pharmaceutical company.
In company-funded studies, participants who took Wegovy had an average weight loss of 15%, around 34 pounds. The participants lost weight steadily for 16 months before plateauing, according to NPR.
Dr. Harold Bays, who helped run the studies, said, “With existing drugs, you’re going to get maybe 5% to 10% weight reduction, sometimes not even that.”
Dr. Bays is the Medical Director of the Louisville Metabolic and Atherosclerosis Research Center and Chief Scientific Officer of the Obesity Medicine Association.
More than 100 million American adults are obese and the incidence keeps on increasing. Research has found that losing even 5% of your weight can bring health benefits. Losing weight helps improve your energy, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and cholesterol levels, but that amount often doesn’t satisfy patients who are focused on weight loss, according to Dr. Bays.
He said semaglutide appears to be much safer than other obesity drugs that “have gone down in flames” due to safety concerns.
However, some participants who took the drug experienced common side effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which usually subsided.
Another potential risk associated with semaglutide is a type of thyroid tumor, so it is not advised for people with a history of certain thyroid and endocrine tumors. The drug has also been found to have a risk of depression and pancreatic inflammation.
Semaglutide is used for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. It acts like human glucagon-like peptide-1 such that it increases insulin secretion, increasing sugar metabolism. The drug is a synthesized version of a gut hormone that curbs appetite.
The drug is to be injected weekly under the skin. Like all weight-loss drugs, semaglutide is to be used in associating with a healthy diet and exercise.
Novo Nordisk did not disclose the price of the drug but said it will be similar to the price of Saxenda (liraglutide), another weight loss drug that costs over $1,300 per month.
Dr. Archana Sadhu, an endocrinologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, said the usefulness of semaglutide “depends on what the price will be,” noting that some health insurance plans do not cover weight-loss drugs.
Dr. Sadhu, who is not affiliated with Novo Nordisk, said she plans to switch obese patients who have type 2 diabetes to semaglutide. She said, “It makes patients feel full sooner and increases the release of insulin from the pancreas to control blood sugar. Patients would then be more likely to get motivated to exercise and eat healthier.”
Novo Nordisk is now working on developing a pill version of Wegovy.