Obesity among adolescents almost halves after treatment with weight-loss drug

Almost three-quarters of young people given semaglutide moved down at least one weight category, study finds

Almost 75% of 12- to 18-year-olds in the study dropped by at least one weight category after 68 weeks of treatment with semaglutide (Wegovy) and counselling. Photograph: iStock

Almost half of the obese adolescents given a groundbreaking new treatment managed to lose enough weight to drop below the clinical cut-off for obesity, new research presented in Dublin has found.

Almost three-quarters of the 12- to 18-year-olds in the study moved down by at least one weight category after 68 weeks of treatment with semaglutide, which is sold under the brand name Wegovy, and lifestyle counselling.

Among a placebo group who received lifestyle counselling only, 12 per cent managed to reduce their weight below the threshold for obesity and 19 per cent moved down one weight category.

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Lead author Aaron Kelly, speaking at the European Congress on Obesity in Dublin’s Convention Centre, described the results as potentially “transformative” for young people with obesity, but warned the drug has to be taken lifelong.


“This won’t solve the obesity problem but it is an important piece of the puzzle,” said Dr Kelly, co-director of the centre for paediatric obesity medicine at the University of Minnesota. “Early intervention with medication gives a child the best shot of a long, healthy, happy life and you then need to keep your foot on the gas pedal, because it’s a chronic disease,” he added.

Wegovy and other new-generation weight-loss treatments have been hailed as miracle drugs but massive demand has led to supply shortages worldwide. The drug has yet to be made available in Ireland by its Danish manufacturer Novo Nordisk, which funded the latest study. Last month, a senior HSE official told The Irish Times that funding Wegovy could be among the biggest affordability challenges the health service will face, given the potential demand.

About 10 per cent of Irish children are obese and another 10 per cent are overweight.

The study by researchers in four countries, published today in the journal Obesity, involved 201 adolescents with body-mass index in the highest 5 per cent of the population.

Weight loss: 18kg

After 68 weeks, 74 per cent of participants on semaglutide had an improvement of one or more BMI categories, versus 19 per cent on placebo. An improvement of two or more BMI categories occurred in 45 per cent of participants, versus 3 per cent on placebo.

By this time, 45 per cent of participants were classified as normal weight or overweight rather than obese. The average weight loss was 18kg. The most common side effects were nausea and vomiting, but Dr Kelly said these were mostly transient.

“This is historically unprecedented with treatments other than bariatric surgery,” according to Dr Kelly.

In other research presented at the conference, UK scientists found a history of obesity increases the risk of early death by about 30 per cent, independent of whether the person is obese or not.

Past obesity is associated with worse mental health and may be “psychologically scarring”, they also found.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is a former heath editor of The Irish Times.