LONDON — The battle to lose weight can be a difficult one, but a new study reveals patients struggling with obesity may soon get some much needed help. Researchers from University College London say a new drug can help significantly cut body weight in obese patients. One in three participants in an international trial of semaglutide lost around 20 percent of their extra weight.
Researchers are calling the results of the 68-week drug trial a “game changer” when it comes to improving health and cutting disease risk in overweight individuals. Study authors say semaglutide works by hijacking the body’s appetite regulating system in the brain. This reduces the feeling of hunger and, along with diet changes and increasing activity, lowers calorie intake.
Nearly 2,000 people in 16 countries participated in the semaglutide trial. After receiving a weekly injection of the drug, the average patient lost over 33 pounds during the 16-month study.
“The findings of this study represent a major breakthrough for improving the health of people with obesity. Three quarters (75%) of people who received semaglutide 2.4mg lost more than 10% of their body weight and more than one-third lost more than 20%. No other drug has come close to producing this level of weight loss – this really is a game changer. For the first time, people can achieve through drugs what was only possible through weight-loss surgery,” Rachel Batterham from the Centre for Obesity Research at UCL says in a university release.
“The impact of obesity on health has been brought into sharp focus by COVID-19 where obesity markedly increases the risk of dying from the virus, as well as increasing the risk of many life-limiting serious diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease and certain types of cancers. This drug could have major implications for UK health policy for years to come,” the study’s principal author adds.
What is semaglutide?
Although the drug is new with regards to obesity prevention, semaglutide is already helping patients dealing with type 2 diabetes. For those patients, doctors typically prescribe much lower doses (one milligram) in comparison to the obesity study dose.
Researchers say the drug contains a compound which is similar to the human glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone. The gut releases this hormone into the blood as the body takes in food. GLP-1 stimulates weight loss by reducing hunger and making the eater feel full. Some participants noted side-effects including nausea and diarrhea, but researchers say they could treat these issues without suspending semaglutide treatments.
Along with tremendous weight loss, the team notes patients also saw reductions in risks factors for heart disease and diabetes. These included lower waist circumference, blood fats, blood sugar, and blood pressure. The group also reported improvements in their overall quality of life.
“This is a significant advance in the treatment of obesity. Semaglutide is already approved and used clinically at a lower dose for treatment of diabetes, so as doctors we are already familiar with its use. For me this is particularly exciting as I was involved in very early studies of GLP1 (when I worked at the Hammersmith Hospital in the 1990s we were the first to show in laboratory studies that GLP1 affected appetite), so it is good to see this translated into an effective treatment for people with obesity,” says Professor John Wilding from the University of Liverpool.
Tremendous weight loss results
The 1,961 adults in the Phase III randomized controlled trial had an average weight of 231 pounds. Their average body mass index (BMI) was around 38kg/m2, falling into the obese range of the scale.
Participants received the 2.4mg injection on a weekly basis, similar to the way diabetes patients inject insulin. Just under 95 percent of the group completed the 68-week program, starting in the fall of 2018.
Along with injections of semaglutide, the group also underwent face-to-face or phone counseling sessions with dietitians every month to help them maintain a low-calorie diet and physically active routine.
The program resulted in patients taking semaglutide lowering their BMI by 5.54. Patients who took a placebo instead of the drug only lost about six pounds and lowered their BMI by 0.92.
Semaglutide is now awaiting approval as an obesity treatment from the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), the European Medicines Agency (EMA), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The study appears in the New England Journal for Medicine.