Diabetes medication almost twice as effective as other anti-obesity drugs, researchers say

A study from Northwestern Medicine found that, at a higher dosage, the diabetes medication semaglutide is more effective than FDA-approved weight-loss drugs currently on the market.

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Semaglutide, based on a natural hormone found in the gut, is delivered to the bloodstream through an injection administered once a week, and works by suppressing one’s appetite to reduce calorie intake and hunger.

DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS, Getty

Shown to improve physical functioning and blood pressure, a diabetes medication could be the answer to combating obesity as it is about two times more effective than other prescription weight-loss drugs, according to a study conducted by Northwestern Medicine and other institutions.

The medication, called semaglutide, is currently used as a treatment for diabetes.

Dr. Robert Kushner, a professor of medicine and medical education in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, said researchers found by increasing the medicine’s dosage from 1 mg to 2.4 mg, it becomes one of the best drugs on the market for losing weight.

“[It was] incredibly unprecedented and surprising to me how good the results were,” said Kushner, a corresponding author of the study and principal investigator of the trial site at Northwestern Medicine. “It is really the first time we’ve seen a drug this effective for the treatment of obesity.”

The Phase 3 trial of the Semaglutide Treatment Effect in People with Obesity study, which spanned from fall 2019 to spring 2020, draws data from 1,961 overweight adults and adults with obesity at 129 sites in 16 countries; 94.3% of participants completed the trial.

In the double blind study, Kushner said participants who received the placebo along with those given the 2.4 mg of semaglutide were both counseled by a registered dietitian every month to help patients adhere to the reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity, providing them with necessary behavioral strategies and motivation.

“It’s really important for anybody who wants to get help with weight loss that they try and follow a diet to help restrict their energy intake, and that they’re supported [while increasing] their physical activity,” said John Wilding, professor of medicine at the University of Liverpool and a co-chief investigator in the trial.

Around 70% of participants lost at least 10% of their baseline body weight by the end of the trial, and one-third of individuals treated with semaglutide lost at least 20% of their starting weight—a similar reduction to patients one to three years after undergoing weight-loss surgery.

On average, Kushner said participants lost approximately 14.9% of their body weight, making semaglutide almost two times more effective than some other weight-management drugs currently on the market, which Kushner said help individuals lose between six to 11% of their body weight.

Semaglutide, based on a natural hormone found in the gut, is delivered to the bloodstream through an injection administered once a week and works by suppressing one’s appetite to reduce calorie intake and hunger.

Following the trial, semaglutide-treated participants reported walking faster and climbing stairs with less pain, and researchers found improvements in patients’ blood pressure, glucose control and cardiovascular risk factors.

Wilding said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing the study and its proposal for the long term use of semaglutide at a higher dose to help individuals lose weight and maintain their weight loss. Currently, the drug is only sold to treat diabetes.

Side effects from semaglutide during the trial, Wilding said, included some participants experiencing nausea, diarrhea and gallstones, which are a common risk for patients who have lost a significant amount of weight.

Anne Phillips, senior vice president of Clinical Development and Medical and Regulatory Affairs at Novo Nordisk, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures semaglutide, said the organization is pleased that the data from the study was published.

Currently, Wilding said he is also part of two separate trials working to collect data from those with obesity and heart disease being treated with higher doses of semaglutide.

Wilding said it is exciting to consider the possibility of combining different gut hormones that are all involved in controlling one’s appetite to form more anti-obesity drugs.

“It may be that by putting more than one together, we can eventually reach the sort of weight loss that we see with bariatric surgery, with medicines,” Wilding said. “I think that’s where the future is going to be.”

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