THURSDAY, Nov. 3, 2022 (HealthDay News) – A weight-loss drug approved for adults may soon become an option for teens struggling with obesity.
Young people who received the drug Wegovy (semaglutide) were able to lose an average of 14.7% of their starting body weight in a new clinical trial. More than 40% of the youths who received a weekly injection of the medication plus lifestyle counseling were able to reduce their BMI by 20% or more.
The trial, published Nov. 2 in the New England Journal of Medicine, included 201 people ages 12 to 17 who were treated at medical centers in the U.S., Europe and Mexico. Some received a placebo and counseling on diet and exercise instead of Wegovy. Those youths actually gained 2.7% of their initial body weight.
The study was funded by the drug's maker, Novo Nordisk.
“I’m absolutely excited,” study co-author Aaron Kelly, co-director of the Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine at the University of Minnesota, told NBC News. “We’ve entered the phase where we are seeing the kind of weight loss where teens come to us in tears. It’s the first time they’ve had control of their weight in their lifetimes.”
Study participants were an average weight of 237 pounds. About 73% of those who received the medication lost 5% or more of their body weight, compared to 18% of those who only had lifestyle interventions. The drug also helped teens reduce some cardiovascular risk factors and improve their quality of life.
“That’s the first time to my knowledge that an anti-obesity medication in teens has been shown to improve their quality of life,” Kelly said.
Though another drug approved for use in adolescents with obesity exists, semaglutide is the “most highly effective anti-obesity medication for teens,” Kelly contended.
The drug was initially used to treat type 2 diabetes, when doctors found weight loss was a side effect.
Novo Nordisk then successfully tested the medication for weight loss. The FDA approved the drug for adults with obesity in 2021.
“Medications for treating weight in children is a novel concept for most people,” Dr. Eduardo Grunvald, medical director of the Weight Management Program at the University of California, San Diego, told NBC News. “As we get more data on safety and efficacy, these medications are going to become more commonplace.”
Many think of obesity “as a lifestyle problem that is under our control,” Grunvald said. “But we know that the impact of just lifestyle interventions is modest at best.”
Still, the question remains as to whether those who use the medication will find it works long-term.
Data on those taking it for diabetes have found that people gained weight, Dr. Zhaoping Li, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC News.
“Of course the bigger issue is, if people stop taking this drug after one or two years, would the weight come back? The answer is probably yes,” she said.
“We should use this as an opportunity to identify the fundamental issues that led to weight gain in the patients’ individual lives and help them to make fundamental changes not only to lose weight and maintain the weight loss, but also to help them lead a healthier lifestyle,” Li said.
Like adults, children with obesity also face higher rates of weight-related disease later in life.
“We have a huge problem with overweight and obesity in this country,” Dr. Monica Bianco, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, told NBC News. “As obese kids become young adults, they start to develop conditions like hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. We’re seeing people as young as 30 having heart attacks.”
Obesity affects more than 20% of people ages 12 to 19 in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That includes 17-year-old Emmalea Zummo, who entered the study at 250 pounds and feeling depressed about her weight.
“I tried diets,” Zummo told NBC News. “I tried exercise. I’m in more sports than any other kid I know, and nothing would work. My body would just get used to the extra exercise, get used to the new diet and the weight would come back.”
Zummo, who lives in Western Pennsylvania, has now lost more than 70 pounds and said she now feels better about herself.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on childhood obesity.
SOURCE: New England Journal of Medicine, Nov. 2, 2022; NBC News