No more needles? A daily pill may work as well as Wegovy shots to treat obesity

Closeup of a beam scale in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File)

What if treating obesity could be as easy as popping an effective pill?

That’s a notion that has long fueled hope for many of the more than 40% of Americans who are considered obese — and fueled criticism by those who advocate for wider weight acceptance. Soon, it may be a reality.

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High-dose oral versions of the medication in the weight-loss drug Wegovy may work as well as the popular injections when it comes to paring pounds and improving health, according to final results of two studies released Sunday night. The potent tablets also appear to work for people with diabetes, who notoriously struggle to lose weight.

Drugmaker Novo Nordisk plans to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve the pills later this year.

“If you ask people a random question, ‘Would you rather take a pill or an injection?’ People overwhelmingly prefer a pill,” said Dr. Daniel Bessesen, chief of endocrinology at Denver Health, who treats patients with obesity but was not involved in the new research.

That’s assuming, Bessesen said, that both ways to take the medications are equally effective, available and affordable. “Those are the most important factors for people,” he said.

There have been other weight-loss pills on the market, but none that achieve the substantial reductions seen with injected drugs like Wegovy. People with obesity will be “thrilled” to have an oral option that’s as effective, said Dr. Katherine Saunders, clinical professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Health and co-founder of Intellihealth, a company that focuses on obesity treatment.

Novo Nordisk already sells Rybelsus, which is approved to treat diabetes and is an oral version of semaglutide, the same medication used in the diabetes drug Ozempic and Wegovy. It comes in doses up to 14 milligrams.

But results of two gold-standard trials released at the American Diabetes Association’s annual meeting looked at how doses of oral semaglutide as high as 25 milligrams and 50 milligrams worked to reduce weight and improve blood sugar and other health markers.

A 16-month study of about 1,600 people who were overweight or had obesity and were already being treated for Type 2 diabetes found the high-dose daily pills lowered blood sugar significantly better than the standard dose of Rybelsus. From a baseline weight of 212 pounds (96.16 kilograms), the higher doses also resulted in weight loss of between 15 pounds (6.80 kilograms) to 20 pounds (9.07 kilograms), compared to about 10 pounds (4.54 kilograms) on the lower dose.

Another 16-month study of more than 660 adults who had obesity or were overweight with at least one related disease — but not diabetes — found the 50-milligram daily pill helped people lose an average of about 15% of their body weight, or about 35 pounds (15.88 kilograms), versus about 6 pounds (2.72 kilograms) with a dummy pill, or placebo.

That’s “notably consistent” with the weight loss spurred by weekly shots of the highest dose of Wegovy, the study authors said.

But there were side effects. About 80% of participants receiving any size dose of oral semaglutide experienced things like mild to moderate intestinal problems, such as nausea, constipation and diarrhea.

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