New Drug Grabs Media Attention

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adult obesity is a common, serious and costly disease.  The World Health Organization reports that global obesity has nearly tripled since 1975. In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these, over 650 million were obese. In 2016, 39 percent of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight, and 13 percent were obese.

Obesity contributes to many chronic health conditions including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.  But many adults have difficulty losing weight and keeping it off long term – that’s why a new class of weight loss drugs to enter the market has received so much media attention and demand that pharmacies have been experiencing shortages. 

Semaglutide injections, known by the trade names Wegovy or Ozempic, were intially introduced as a treatment for diabetes in 2017 to help control blood sugar.  The prescription medication was soon discovered to also contribute to significant weight loss in people with obesity who were not able to keep weight off with other treatments.   Until the introduction of this class of drugs, the standard intervention for obesity has been gastric bypass or duodenal switch surgery.  

Semaglutide was developed to mimic GLP-1 receptors which improve blood sugar levels, helping to manage diabetes.  Researchers also discovered GLP-1 slows down digestion, resulting in a reduction in food intake and weight loss.  These discoveries led to off-label prescribing of semaglutide drugs like Ozempic for weight loss.  Wegovy, a similar but stronger dose of semaglutide, was developed specifically for weight loss, receiving FDA approval in June 2021

According to a recent Huffington Post Wellness report, Wegovy is a weekly injection for adults with a body mass index(BMI) over 30 or who have a BMI over 27 and at least one weight-related health issue like high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol.  It is designed to be used in conjunction with diet and exercise and patients are advised to work with a healthcare team that includes dietitians and therapists if possible.  A primary care doctor can also prescribe Wegovy to patients. 

Many people report that the drug tamps down sugar cravings, boosts cravings for protein and fibre and helps them feel full longer.  Some also said Wegovy reduced their desire to drink alcohol and helped them sleep better.   The type 2 diabetes drug Ozempic is also legally prescribed off-label for weight loss, however, the demand for this use of the medication has led to drug shortages and people with diabetes having trouble filling their prescriptions. 

Obesity doctors and patients are excited about these new weight loss medications – early findings show users are losing up to 20 percent of their starting body weight. However, the drugs are not always covered by insurance and can range between $1,500 and $1,800 a month, making the cost prohibitive for many patients. 

Risks associated with semaglutide injections include nausea, vomiting, constipation, gas and heartburn.  These side effects are usually managed by eating smaller, more frequent meals or taking over-the-counter heartburn medications.  In rare cases, semaglutide injections are linked to thyroid tumours which can be cancerous.  Pancreatitis, gallbladder problems, low blood sugar, kidney issues, allergic reactions and depression have also been reported in association with semaglutide shots. 

Most people will need to stay on the drug for at least a year, and an early study indicates that patients who go off the drug gain weight back quickly, suggesting it may be required over the long term for lasting benefits.