WeightWatchers, the 60-year-old diet firm, announced this week the acquisition of a telemedicine company whose providers prescribe anti-obesity drugs for…
WeightWatchers, a 60-year-old diet company, announced this week it will acquire a telemedicine company whose providers prescribe anti-obesity drugs to a growing number of eager online subscribers.
The $132 million deal with Sequence is the latest commercial push into the red-hot market for prescription drugs that promise significant weight loss. For months, celebrities have been promoting the diabetes drug Ozempic on social media, even though it’s not approved for weight loss. The demand for it caused a shortage.
WeightWatchers will introduce its approximately 3.5 million subscribers to a new generation of medicine that goes beyond behavioral changes such as gym workouts and diet tracking. Obesity experts say these drugs could revolutionize the treatment of the disease, which affects 42% of American adults.
Here’s a look at the promise of these new drugs and the caveats about their use.
WHAT ARE THE NEW DIETS?
The drugs that have generated the most buzz belong to a class of drugs called GLP-1 agonists. Two of the most popular, Ozempic and Wegovy, are different doses of the same drug, semaglutide.
Ozempic has been used for six years to treat type 2 diabetes and is not approved for weight loss. Wegovy was approved in 2021 for the treatment of obesity in adults and late last year for the treatment of children and adolescents aged 12 years and older.
Doctors only prescribe medication for people with diabetes, as well as people who are obese or overweight and have additional health problems. Most of these types of drugs are delivered through weekly injections.
Supply problems and a surge in demand last year led to shortages of the drug, but manufacturer Novo Nordisk said stocks had been replenished.
HOW DO DRUGS WORK?
They mimic the action of the gut hormone that is triggered after eating, increasing the release of insulin, blocking the production of sugar in the liver and suppressing appetite.
A newer drug called tirzepatide mimics the effects of two hormones for an even greater effect. Eli Lilly and Co.’s drug, sold under the brand name Mounjaro, is now approved for diabetes, but the FDA has granted it fast-track review status for obesity. A decision is expected this spring.
With reduced appetite and a stronger feeling of satiety, people who use these drugs eat less and lose weight.
HOW EFFECTIVE ARE THE DRUGS?
In a clinical trial, adults taking Wegovy saw an average weight loss of nearly 35 pounds, or about 15% of their original body weight. Teenagers lost about 16% of their body weight.
A clinical trial of Mounjaro, which is still being studied, showed an average weight loss of 15% to 21% of body weight, depending on the dose, compared with a weight loss of about 3% for people who took a placebo or a dummy drug.
WHY NOT JUST DIET AND EXERCISE?
In a typical weight-loss program, where participants rely only on diet and exercise, about a third of people enrolled will lose 5% or more of their body weight, noted Dr. Louis Aron, director of the Comprehensive Weight Management Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. .
Most people have trouble losing weight because of the body’s biological responses to eating less, he said. There are several hormones that respond to reduced calorie intake by increasing hunger and maintaining body weight.
“There is a real physical phenomenon,” he said. “There is a resistance mechanism, which is a coordinated effort by the body to prevent you from losing weight.”
WHAT ARE THE SIDE EFFECTS OF THE DRUGS?
The most common side effects are short-term gastrointestinal problems such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and constipation.
Other possible side effects include thyroid tumors, cancer, inflammation of the pancreas, kidneys and gall bladder, and eye problems. People with a family history of certain types of thyroid cancer or rare genetic endocrine disorders should avoid the drug.
WHAT DO CONSUMERS NEED TO CONTROL?
These new drugs can be an effective part of a multifaceted approach to weight loss, said Dr. Amy Rothberg, a University of Michigan endocrinologist who runs a virtual weight management and diabetes program called Rewind.
But she worries that programs like WeightWatchers are primarily interested in increasing sign-ups — and profits.
“I hope they do their due diligence and really monitor the patients who are taking the medication,” she said.
It’s important to make sure patients are taking their medications as prescribed, to make sure there’s no reason they shouldn’t be taking the medication, and to monitor them for side effects, she said.
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