Researchers probe new uses of popular weight loss, diabetes drugs

Popular medications indicated for Type 2 diabetes or chronic weight management, including Ozempic, Mounjaro and Wegovy, are dancing through a flood of research for broader indications. 

The therapies are all glucagon-like peptide-1 receptor agonists, which mimic a gut hormone that suppresses appetite and promotes a feeling of fullness. The drug class is increasingly popular — especially for off-label prescriptions for weight loss — and ongoing research hints at a larger portfolio of uses. 

If the drugs achieve more indications and demand swells, though, supply can become more constrained. 

Here are four areas researchers are testing:

1. Cardiovascular diseases

Trials sponsored by Wegovy's drugmaker and independent researchers have found possible avenues for the weight loss drug to be indicated for heart diseases. 

In phase 3 trials, Novo Nordisk found Wegovy reduced heart failure-related symptoms and helped patients evade 20% of major adverse cardiovascular events. The drugmaker said it plans to file for broader indications based on the data. 

An independent study of using GLP-1s in mice showed the medications suppressed heart inflammation, which suggests potential remedies for heart disease, kidney disease, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.

2. Extra weight loss uses 

Novo Nordisk is also exploring a pill form of Ozempic, a weekly injectable diabetes drug. The company tested the experimental therapy's efficacy among more than 600 adults who are obese or overweight, and on average, the patients shed 15.1% of their weight in the phase 3 study. 

GLP-1s are also gaining popularity among menopausal women who want to lose weight. 

Most women gain up to 1.5 pounds each year during menopause, and the weight gain can lead to a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

"We're getting requests daily," Stephanie Faubion, MD, medical director for the Menopause Society and director of the Mayo Clinic's Center for Women's Health, told The New York Times

3. Addiction and dementia

Scientists in the U.S. and U.K. have begun trials to see if GLP-1s can aid patients with dementia or addiction. 

Past research has indicated GLP-1s can reduce amyloid and tau on the brain — two proteins connected to dementia. At the University of Oxford in England, a phase 1 and 2 trial is underway to see if GLP-1s can minimize the risk of dementia. 

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers are investigating Ozempic and Wegovy as possible treatments for alcohol and drug addiction in humans after finding success in animal studies. Oklahoma State University in Stillwater and the University of Baltimore are also launching research into how GLP-1s can affect alcoholism.

4. Cancer

A small study of 20 people signaled a potential for semaglutide, the active ingredient of Ozempic, Rybelsus and Wegovy, to be used as a cancer treatment. Researchers found an "independent mechanism" in the ingredient that can boost natural killer cells, which destroy cancerous cells. 

"Our data demonstrate, for the first time, the restoration of peripheral blood NK cell cytokine production and cytotoxicity in [people with obesity] treated with GLP-1 analogues," the researchers concluded.

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