Diabetes drug helps obese people lose weight, study says

An injectable drug originally prescribed to diabetes patients that U.S. regulators approved for weight loss helped obese people lose weight, according to a year-long study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Liraglutide, a diabetes drug marketed by Novo Nordisk as Saxenda, has been available in the United States for treating diabetic patients since 2010. The drug has been used in lower doses in treating diabetes (1.8 milligrams), but is used in higher doses (3 milligrams) for weight loss.

The drug works by mimicking the effects of a hormone that works in the gut to signal the brain that you’ve eaten enough and feel full. It reduces the patient’s appetite, making them eat less.

The study, which is large-scale as it was conducted in 191 different sites in 27 countries in Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa and Australia, has a duration of 56 weeks where 3,731 obese people participated.

Participants were 18 years old and older and each had a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. 19-25 BMI is the healthy range for most people.

Two thirds of the patients were injected with Liraglutide and the rest were given a placebo. All participants also received counselling on ways to change their lifestyle to promote weight loss.

After 56 weeks, the patients on Liraglutide lost an average 18.5 pounds, compared with 6.4 pounds for participants given placebo injections.

The drug is not without side effects, though.

Side effects included gastrointestinal distress, gallstones and a slight increase in breast cancer risk. Researchers said more study is needed on the breast cancer findings, and said it was possible that weight loss enabled more tumors to be detected.

The side effects, according to a report by Alice Park of Time, were minimal and did not outweigh the benefits of weight loss. The Food and Drug Administration, in approving the drug, asked Novo Nordisk, to continue to study the drug to ensure the adverse effects remain within an acceptable range.

Another drawback to the use of the drug for weight loss is its high cost. It is about $1,000 for a month of treatment. And to maintain weight loss, patients have to be on the medication indefinitely.

“Cost is going to be an issue initially, but hopefully down the road the cost will get better,” according to Dr. Elias Siraj, a professor of medicine at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the new study but co-authored an editorial accompanying it in the journal.