A weight loss drug going through clinical trials could be five times as profitable as other popular weight loss drugs on the market because of its strong success in managing obesity.
Originally approved for diabetes management, semaglutide drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy have captured consumers’ attention, spurred on by celebrities, like Elon Musk, who have touted them for their weight loss effects. The drugs have become so popular that some places have experienced a shortage, causing diabetes patients to go without a medication that manages their condition.
At first glance, the drugs seem like an easy solution to obesity, which continues to rise in America. But drug companies are studying other options. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly recently conducted a clinical trial with tirzepatide, also called Mounjaro, a medication approved to manage Type 2 diabetes that has also shown successful results with weight loss.
The study found that tirzepatide delivered weight loss results of up to 15.7 percent of a patient’s body weight, an average of more than 34 pounds. Eli Lilly is working to complete its rolling submission to the Food and Drug Administration and expects regulatory action later this year for approval of the drug for weight loss purposes.
If approved for weight management, tirzepatide could top $50 billion in annual sales, five times the amount of semaglutide medications like Ozempic and Wegovy, which produced nearly $10 billion in sales last year, according to the Associated Press.
How Do the Drugs Work?
Semaglutide medications such as Ozempic and Wegovy are glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) agonists that bind to receptors in the pancreas. The medication enhances insulin production, lowering blood sugar in patients with Type 2 diabetes. The drug also delays gastric emptying, resulting in a lack of hunger because the patient feels full for a longer time. The combined actions often lead to weight loss.
Tirzepatide combines the action of two hormones, GLP-1 and glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide (GIP).
“This medication is more potent than semaglutide because it is a GLP-1/GIP dual agonist and leverages the actions of both hormones to enhance insulin production after eating and decrease hunger,” Dr. Katie Page told Newsweek. She is a director at the Diabetes and Obesity Research Institute and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Southern California.
An Eli Lilly spokesperson told Newsweek that the company couldn’t officially compare and contrast semaglutide and tirzepatide because such a study hasn’t been completed yet.
How Are the Drugs Taken?
Both semaglutide and tirzepatide are taken once a week with subcutaneous injections. A small needle is used to inject the medication into fat tissue in the patient’s abdomen, thigh or upper arm.
© Mario Tama/Getty In this photo illustration, boxes of the diabetes drug Ozempic rest on a pharmacy counter on April 17, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Ozempic was originally approved by the FDA to treat people with Type 2 diabetes- who risk serious health consequences without medication. In recent months, there has been a spike in demand for Ozempic, or semaglutide, due to its weight loss benefits, which has led to shortages. Some doctors prescribe Ozempic off-label to treat obesity. Mario Tama/Getty Revolutionizing Weight Loss
Close to half of American adults, 42 percent, struggle with obesity. Obesity is considered a “major public health problem,” and more than 19 percent of the nation’s children struggle with it, according to Page.
With the increasing availability of GLP-1 agonists and GLP-1/GIP dual agonists, the new weight loss drugs have “revolutionized” the management of obesity, she said. The drugs are leading to two or three times as much weight loss as other approved weight loss medications on the market, such as phentermine and topiramate.
Not only do the medications treat obesity. They are also highly impactful for comorbidities associated with obesity, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.
What Are the Side Effects?
On the surface, the medications sound like a magic drug for those battling obesity and diabetes, but there are negative side effects. The drugs can be expensive. Without insurance, the cost can range from $1,000 to $1,300 a month, with only 20 to 30 percent of insurance companies paying for the drug, the AP reported. Since the drugs suppress appetite, weight regain is likely if a person stops taking them.
In addition to their steep price and limited potential when stopped, the drugs come with an assortment of negative side effects such as vomiting and diarrhea. A less common but potentially more serious side effect is pancreatitis.
As the drugs gain popularity nationwide, it is increasingly more difficult for diabetes patients to get the medication they need to manage their disease.
“Some of my patients with Type 2 diabetes have not been able to get their medications refilled because pharmacies are out of semaglutide and tirzepatide, which is a serious problem because it adversely affects diabetes management,” Page said.
“Once the supply can keep up with the demand, then these medications can be more readily available for patients with overweight/obesity without diabetes,” she said
Page warns patients against using the medications to replace lifestyle management like diet and exercise.
The Eli Lilly spokesperson told Newsweek that Eli Lilly “continues to invest and add manufacturing and supply capacity around the world” to manage supply shortages. The company is adding facilities to keep up with demand.