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Health & Science: Weekly weight loss injections trialled

30th Jun 2023
Health & Science: Weekly weight loss injections trialled

A new trial to expand access to the weight-loss drug Wegovy is being launched in England. The trial will examine the impact the drug could have on obesity-related illnesses to reduce pressure on the NHS.

Currently, under guidelines given by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) drugs regulator, Wegovy is only offered through specialist weight management services within the NHS, usually within a hospital setting. The £40 million pilot scheme will look at the possibility of administering weekly injections via GP surgeries and other health services.

Wegovy is the UK brand name for the Danish-manufactured appetite suppressant Semaglutide. Semaglutide belongs to a group of drugs called glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. GLP-1 is a hormone produced in the gut and released after eating. It lowers appetite, stimulates insulin release, and slows food movement from the stomach, which helps you feel fuller for longer.

Drugs like Wegovy mimic GLP-1 effects and suppress appetite, so you eat less, leading to weight loss over time. In clinical trials, Wegovy reduced body weight in people with Body Mass Indexes of 27 or above by around 15 per cent over 68 weeks. On average, an eighth of that weight is lost in the first month.

Wegovy is the first drug approved to target obesity in the UK. The use of Wegovy is currently limited to adults with a BMI of at least 35 and one weight-associated condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. While this may sound like the solution to reducing obesity, there are side effects.

These include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and digestive issues such as diarrhoea, constipation, and vomiting. In addition, there are concerns that people will put weight back on after finishing treatment, so changes in diet and lifestyle are also needed to maintain weight loss. Currently, NICE guidelines limit treatment to two years because no data is available on Wegovy’s long-term impact.

Wegovy is given weekly, along with support from specialist weight-management services. As these are largely hospital-based services, only about 35,000 people have access to this treatment. However, the government says tens of thousands more could be eligible, although the UK has no supply of the drug yet.

The government is keen to broaden the service, with weekly injections administered by GP clinics and possibly through local pharmacies.

While studies with Wegovy have shown that people can lose up to 15 per cent of their body weight, there are concerns about the lasting effects of the treatment.

In trials using other so-called ‘skinny jabs’, users often put weight back on after stopping treatment. So, while Wegovy can help reduce weight and obesity-related illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure, it is no substitute for healthy eating and exercise in the long term.

Obesity is a major health issue in the UK and many other countries. Approximately 12 million adults in England are obese, meaning that obesity-related issues will remain a health concern for the foreseeable future.

The government says obesity costs the NHS in England £6.5 billion a year, with more than one million hospital admissions linked to obesity in 2019 –20. For this reason, the Government is keen to see if Wegovy treatment could impact obesity-related health issues and reduce pressure on the NHS.

NHS medical director, Professor Sir Stephen Powis, said: “Pharmaceutical treatments offer a new way of helping people with obesity gain a healthier weight, and this new pilot will help determine if these medicines can be used safely and effectively in non-hospital settings as well as a range of other interventions we have in place.”

He said NHS England was negotiating with the manufacturer to secure long-term supplies at prices that represent value for money for taxpayers.

(Photo credit: Focal Foto/Flickr)

Rachel Kayani

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