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Prescription Medications for the Treatment of Obesity

Powerful Essays
An epidemic is sweeping through the developed world, threatening millions with disability and death. Is it the dreaded Ebola virus? No, it is obesity. ‘Epidemic’ may sound exaggerated, but the facts speak for themselves: 154 million people worldwide are obese—or more than 20% are over their ideal body weight—including more than 50% of all Americans. More disturbing is the prevalence of childhood obesity, which has jumped dramatically over the past 20 years and now accounts for a doubling in the incidence of diabetes, a 5-fold increase in sleep apnoea and a 3-fold increase in gall bladder disease. The World Health Organization and the US Surgeon General have already warned that obesity is a serious, life-threatening disease. Indeed, as a major risk factor for hypertension, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and possibly certain forms of cancer, obesity exacts a greater toll on health and healthcare costs than either smoking or drinking. In the USA alone, the direct medical costs of obesity-related diseases account for 6% of the nation’s entire health-care budget. Obesity is, in short, a great deal more than a ‘lifestyle’ or cosmetic problem.

This has not been lost on the pharmaceutical industry. Companies know that the worldwide market for an effective treatment for obesity is gargantuan: analysts estimate that an effective and safe drug could generate as much as US$26 billion per year in the USA alone. ‘It is probably the largest pharmaceutical market ever, and carries with it 27–30 dangerous co-morbidities,’ said Louis Tartaglia, Vice President of metabolic diseases at Millennium Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA), who estimates the current annual worldwide market conservatively at US$10–15 billion. If one adds the patients who are obese and diabetic, the number soars even higher, as obesity and diabetes are linked diseases.

The sudden rise in obesity is mainly a result of lifestyle changes, particularly the ready availability of calorie-laden, refined food and a decrease in physical activity. ‘Genes have not changed in the past 50 years, but our eating and exercising habits have,’ said George Yancopoulos, Chief Scientific Officer and President of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals (Tarrytown, NY), one of many companies working on drugs to treat obesity. But it cannot be lifestyle alone. Certain ethnic groups have a higher prevalence of obesity, and the discove...

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...ses obesity-associated high blood sugar and high insulin levels. Johns Hopkins University, which holds the patent to C75, has licensed it to FASgen, a new company in Baltimore.

Finally, older substances may yield new drugs as well: a small region of the human growth hormone appears to have a specific effect on fat without any effect on either growth or insulin resistance, according to Frank Ng of Monash University (Melbourne, Australia). With the support from Metabolic Pharmaceuticals, Ng has developed it into an orally administered drug, which is now in phase IIa testing.

Basic research to uncover fat metabolism and applied research to find effective treatments against obesity have received a lot of attention over the last years both in terms of media coverage and funding. And even if the interest in developing effective treatments against being overweight has a strong lifestyle component, it is increasingly crucial to public health. New treatments are needed to help those millions of people suffering from obesity—especially the dramatically rising number of overweight children who are at risk of lifelong diabetes and the accompanying risk of heart disease and disability.
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