A weight-loss drug that has been available in the U.S. for the last three years has recently received a safety stamp from researchers.
Lorcaserin, a drug that modulates appetite to induce a feeling of fullness, was found to be a safe and effective pill that sustained weight-loss without raising the risk of a cardiovascular event. It is the first weight-loss drug considered safe for heart health in long-term use. The results of the study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Aug. 26.
Tam Fry, chair of the U.K.’s National Obesity Forum, has called it a “holy grail” of weight-loss medication.
“I think it is the thing everybody has been looking for,” he said to The Guardian. “I think there will be several holy grails, but this is a holy grail and one which has been certainly at the back of the mind of a lot of specialists for a long time.”
The study, which was conducted in the U.S. by researchers at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, found that after one year of use, 38.7 per cent of patients experienced a five per cent weight loss, compared to 17 per cent of participants who took a placebo. After 40 months, lorcaserin users lost an average of nine pounds. The study comprised 12,000 overweight or obese participants.
Despite excitement from some, however, not all health professionals see this as the answer to the obesity epidemic.
“When you look at the results, it’s super underwhelming,” Dr. Jason Fung, a Toronto-based nephrologist and author of The Obesity Code says. “The average weight of the participants was around 230 pounds, which means they went from 230 to 221 pounds over four years — do you really think it’s worth it?”
“The big thing they said was that it didn’t kill people, but it also didn’t help people.”
While Fung admits that after four years of use, participants were healthier from a medical standpoint because they had decreased their risk for heart attack and stroke due to weight loss, he also points out that taking a drug of this nature is a lifelong financial commitment.
“It costs around US$200 per month. You’re talking about $9,000 in 40 months. Your insurance wouldn’t cover it, so you’re paying out of pocket for the rest of your life to keep the weight off.”
He stresses that a drug like lorcaserin wouldn’t do the job of teaching people the importance of establishing healthy habits around food and exercise. (The study says that participants were provided access to and encouraged to take part in a weight-management program, but it does not state how many actually did.)
In addition, he says, there isn’t enough data on drugs of this nature to show that they can’t pose health risks down the line.
“The problem with new drugs is that they could be approved and then five or 10 years down the line, we find out they kill people,” Fung says, pointing to previous weight-loss drugs like fen-phen, which proved to cause heart valve problems.
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“I’d rather take the time and energy to counsel my patients on proper diets and teach them healthy habits that they can incorporate for the rest of their lives.”
At the moment, there are three weight-loss drugs approved for use in Canada: Xenical, a fat absorption inhibitor, Saxenda, an injection drug that was originally created to treat diabetes, and Contrave, a medication commonly used to treat alcohol and drug dependence.
For his part, Fung is reluctant to prescribe any medications to his patients.
“It comes down to eating the right foods, and not eating or snacking all the time to allow your body time to burn off the food you’ve ingested,” he says. “Everyone is looking for the easy way out, but it doesn’t work.”