'Gamechanger' obesity-treating drug may cut body weight by up to 20%, study finds

11 February 2021, 08:18 | Updated: 11 February 2021, 08:31

The new drug has been described as a gamechanger by researchers
The new drug has been described as a gamechanger by researchers. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A new "gamechanger" drug for treating obesity could cut body weight by up to 20 per cent, according to a study.

Researchers said the medication could for the first time allow people to achieve through drugs what was formerly only possible through weight-loss surgery.

More than a third - 35 per cent - of people who took the drug lost more than a fifth of their body weight, a global study involving UCL researchers found.

The results have been greeted by scientists because of their potential to improve the health of people with obesity and to help the UK reduce the impact of diseases, including coronavirus.

Semaglutide - the new drug - works by taking over the body's appetite-regulating system in the brain and then reducing an individual's hunger and calorie intake.

Rachel Batterham, professor of obesity, diabetes and endocrinology who leads the Centre for Obesity Research at UCL and the UCLH Centre for Weight Management, is one of the paper's leading authors, which involved nearly 2,000 people in 16 countries.

She said: "The findings of this study represent a major breakthrough for improving the health of people with obesity.

"Three quarters (75 per cent) of people who received semaglutide 2.4mg lost more than 10 per cent of their body weight and more than one-third lost more than 20 per cent.

"No other drug has come close to producing this level of weight loss - this really is a gamechanger.

"For the first time, people can achieve through drugs what was only possible through weight-loss surgery."

The professor also said the drug could have major implications for the UK's health policy for years to come.

On average, each participant in the study lost 15.3kg (two-and-a-half stone), according to the trial, which was published in the New England Journal for Medicine.

This was accompanied by reductions in risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, such as waist circumference, blood fats, blood sugar and blood pressure, and reported improvements in their overall quality of life.

The trial's UK chief investigator, Professor John Wilding, University of Liverpool, said: "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."

With evidence from this trial, semaglutide has been submitted for regulatory approval as a treatment for obesity to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The randomised controlled trial involved 1,961 adults who were either overweight or had obesity (average weight 105kg/16.5 stone, body mass index 38kg/m2), and took place at 129 sites in 16 countries across Asia, Europe, North America, and South America.

Participants took a 2.4mg dose of semaglutide or matching placebo weekly via an injection under the skin.

Overall, 94.3 per cent of participants completed the 68-week study, which started in autumn 2018.

Those taking part also received individual, face-to-face or phone counselling sessions from registered dietitians every four weeks to help them adhere to the reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity, providing guidance, behavioural strategies and motivation.

Additionally, participants received incentives such as kettlebells or food scales to mark progress and milestones.

In those taking semaglutide, the average weight loss was 15.3kg, with a reduction in BMI of -5.54.

The placebo group observed an average weight loss of 2.6kg (0.4 stone) with a reduction in BMI of -0.92.

Semaglutide is clinically approved to be used for patients with type 2 diabetes, though is typically prescribed in much lower doses of 1mg.