A drug that suppresses appetite has been described as “gamechanger” in the fight against obesity after research showed it could cut body weight by up to 20%.
The study into the effects of semaglutide on obesity by a University College London (UCL) team found that more than one third (35%) of people who took it lost more than one-fifth of their total body weight.
Researchers say it means that for the first time it is possible to achieve through drugs what was previously only possible through weight-loss surgery.
Semaglutide works by hijacking the body’s own appetite regulating system in the brain, leading to reduced hunger and calorie intake.
The UCL randomised control trial involved 1,961 adults who were either overweight or obese (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% 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.
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.
Publishing the data in the New England Journal for Medicine, lead author, Professor Rachel Batterham from UCL’s Centre for Obesity Research, said: “The findings of this study represent a major breakthrough for improving the health of people with obesity.
“Three quarters (75%) of people who received semaglutide 2.4mg lost more than 10% of their body weight and more than one-third lost more than 20%.
“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.”
Professor Batterham added that the drug could have major implications for UK health policy for years to come.
Along with the weight loss, the group taking semaglutide saw 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.
Semaglutide is already clinically approved for use by patients with type 2 diabetes, though at lower doses than used in the obesity trial.
Evidence from the study 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).