New drug shows ‘huge potential’ in tackling obesity

Those who got the drug in a trial lost close to 15% of their body weight, compared with 2.4% among those receiving the placebo

Qiana Mosely: she joined the semaglutide trial and lost 40 pounds, about 15%  of her weight. Photograph: Taylor Glascock/The New York Times

Qiana Mosely: she joined the semaglutide trial and lost 40 pounds, about 15% of her weight. Photograph: Taylor Glascock/The New York Times


For the first time a drug has been shown so effective against obesity that patients may dodge many of its worst consequences, including diabetes, researchers claimed this week.

The drug, semaglutide, made by Danish multinational pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, is already marketed as a treatment for Type 2 diabetes. In a clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago tested semaglutide at a much higher dose as an anti-obesity medication.

Nearly 2,000 participants, at 129 centres in 16 countries, injected themselves weekly with semaglutide or a placebo for 68 weeks. Those who got the drug lost close to 15 per cent of their body weight on average, compared with 2.4 per cent among those receiving the placebo.

More than a third of the participants receiving the drug lost more than 20 per cent of their weight. Symptoms of diabetes and prediabetes improved in many patients.

Those results far exceed the amount of weight loss observed in clinical trials of other obesity medications, experts said.

The drug is a “game-changer”, said Dr Robert Kushner, an obesity researcher at Northwestern University Feinberg school of medicine, who led the study.

“This is the start of a new era of effective treatments for obesity.”

Weight-loss drugs

Dr Clifford Rosen of Maine Medical Center Research Institute, who was not involved in the trial, said: “I think it has a huge potential for weight loss”.

Gastrointestinal symptoms among the participants were “really marginal – nothing like with weight-loss drugs in the past”, added Rosen, an editor at the New England Journal of Medicine and a co-author of an editorial accompanying the study.

For decades scientists have searched for ways to help growing numbers of people struggling with obesity. Several currently available anti-obesity drugs have side effects that limit their use. The most effective, phentermine, brings about a 7.5 per cent weight loss on average, and can be taken only for a short time. After it is stopped even that amount of weight is regained.

Semaglutide is a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring hormone that acts on appetite centres in the brain and in the gut, producing feelings of satiety. A high-dose regimen of the drug has not been studied long enough to know if it has serious long-term consequences.

And it is expected that patients would have to take it for a lifetime to maintain the weight loss.

Diets and drugs

Qiana Mosely spent years trying to lose weight with diets and drugs, but to no avail. Then she joined the semaglutide trial and lost 40 pounds, about 15 per cent of her weight.

Ms Mosely did not know until recently whether she was getting the drug or the placebo. Even though she was trying to eat well and exercise, her weight “was dropping too fast”, she said. “It had to be the meds.”

She experienced no side effects, she said. But when the trial ended and she no longer received the drug, the weight started coming back. – New York Times