The weight-loss drug Wegovy has been found to reduce the risk of serious heart problems by 20% according to a large international study. This is a significant discovery that could potentially change the way doctors approach the treatment of heart patients.
This research is groundbreaking as it demonstrates that an obesity medication can not only assist in weight loss, but also safely prevent heart attacks, strokes, or heart-related deaths in individuals with heart disease, but without diabetes.
These findings challenge the notion that obesity drugs are merely cosmetic treatments and may prompt health insurers to consider covering them.
Dr. Michael Lincoff, the lead author of the study and a heart expert at the Cleveland Clinic, commented, “It moves from a kind of therapy that reduces body weight to a therapy that reduces cardiovascular events.”
Wegovy is a high-dose version of the diabetes treatment Ozempic, which has previously been shown to reduce the risk of serious heart problems in people with diabetes. The study aimed to determine if the same benefits apply to those without diabetes.
Health experts have long been aware that weight loss can improve heart health, but there has not been a proven, safe, and effective obesity medication to reduce specific heart risks, noted Dr. Francisco Lopez-Jimenez, a heart expert at the Mayo Clinic. He anticipates that the new findings will have a significant impact on treatment guidelines in the future.
“This is the population who needs the medicine the most,” said Lopez-Jimenez, who was not involved in the study.
It is estimated that there are about 6.6 million people similar to those included in the study in the United States.
The results of the study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and presented at a medical conference in Philadelphia. Novo Nordisk, the maker of Wegovy and Ozempic, has requested the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to include the heart benefits in Wegovy’s label, similar to Ozempic’s.
The study, funded by the company, involved over 17,500 participants from 41 countries. The participants were aged 45 and older, had a body mass index of 27 or higher, and were monitored for an average of over three years. While they were taking standard drugs for their heart conditions, they were also randomly assigned to receive weekly injections of Wegovy or a placebo.
The study found that 6.5% of those who received Wegovy experienced a heart attack, stroke, or died from a heart-related cause, in comparison to 8% of those who received the placebo, indicating an overall reduction of 20% in the risk of these outcomes, as reported by the researchers.
The decrease in risk primarily stemmed from a difference in heart attacks, but there were not enough reported serious health complications to determine whether the individual outcomes were due to the drug or by chance.
Participants who took Wegovy lost about 9% of their weight, whereas the placebo group lost less than 1%.
The Wegovy group also experienced reductions in key indicators of heart disease, such as inflammation, cholesterol, blood sugars, blood pressure, and waist circumference, according to Dr. Martha Gulati, a heart expert at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. These changes in health markers began early in the study, before significant weight loss was observed.
Gulati, who was not involved in the study, stated, “It means to me that it’s more than just weight loss, how this drug works.”
However, an accompanying editorial to the study noted, “It remains unclear” how much of the results were due to weight loss versus the drug itself.
Approximately a third of all study participants reported serious side effects, with around 17% in the Wegovy group and about 8% in the comparison group discontinuing the study, mainly due to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and other stomach-related issues.
It is important to note that nearly three-quarters of the participants were men and nearly 84% were white. Future research should aim to include more women and individuals from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, according to Gulati and other experts.
Wegovy is part of a new class of injectable medications for obesity. Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Eli Lilly’s Zepbound, a version of the diabetes drug Mounjaro, for weight control.
Both medications come with high price tags, with monthly costs approximately $1,300 for Wegovy and about $1,000 for Zepbound. Additionally, both have been experiencing shortages, with manufacturers promising to increase supplies.
These medications are often not covered by private health insurance or are subject to stringent preauthorization requirements. Medicare, the government health plan for older Americans, is not permitted to cover drugs for weight loss alone. However, there is a push from drug manufacturers and advocates for broader coverage, including legislative efforts to require Medicare to cover the drugs.
Dr. Mark McClellan, former chief of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the FDA, highlighted that the results from this and other studies showing the direct impact of obesity drugs on costly health problems could influence coverage decisions. He pointed out that in 2006, Medicare was allowed to cover weight-loss surgery to address the complications of severe obesity, if not obesity itself.
McClellan stated, “That approach may end up being relevant here.”