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Weight Loss Drug Wegovy’s Next Act: Treating Alzheimer’s?

By | June 7th, 2023

New weight loss and diabetes drugs that dampen hunger signals in the brain, like Wegovy and Ozempic, might be able to protect the aging brain from Alzheimer’s as well.

Have you heard of Wegovy, Ozempic, and Mounjaro? These new medications  — that muffle hunger signals in the brain  — are all the rage. In addition to treating diabetes, they are also prescribed for treating obesity. Unsurprisingly, celebrities are using it off-label to lose extra weight, including everyone from Elon Musk to Meghan McCain, fueling fervent discourse over weight loss and fatphobia.

There is now preliminary data that these drugs could treat Alzheimer’s and dementia. Wegovy, Ozempic, and Mounjara are already FDA-approved for treating other diabetes and obesity,  known risk factors for Alzheimer’s. Clinical trials are already recruiting participants for a late-stage Alzheimer’s trial. This will test whether the active ingredient behind Wegovy and Ozempic could stave off the disease.

“Maintaining a normal weight seems to be pretty important for preventing cognitive decline,” said Heather Ferris, a clinical endocrinologist and scientist at the University of Virginia that studies Alzheimer’s. Ferris, who isn’t directly involved in these trials, added that these drugs “may work better for those [patients] with diabetes” but is excited to see whether these drugs could lead to new Alzheimer’s treatments.

What scientists know so far about weight loss drugs and dementia

Scientists found something surprising in the trial data for Wegovy and other drugs that dampened hunger in the brain. Patients taking these drugs slashed their risk of dementia in half over the next four-and-a-half years, compared to placebo. 

Data from 120,000 diabetes patients in Denmark confirmed these findings. People who took drugs like Wegovy were 11 percent less likely to develop dementia. But scientists couldn’t answer if they simply treated a risk factor or impacted the brain in another way. That’s why they’re now testing these drugs against Alzheimer’s and dementia in people who don’t have diabetes or obesity.

How far along are clinical trials for Wegovy, Ozempic and Alzheimer’s?

Novo Nordisk is currently testing whether a drug using the same active ingredient at Wegovy and Ozempic — called semaglutide — could treat patients with mild cognitive impairment and early stage Alzheimer’s. Since drugs made from the same active ingredient have already been tested for safety and approved for other conditions, the drugmaker can safely jump straight to Phase 3 clinical trials. 

“If that trial turns out negative I don’t know that it will be the end of the story,” Ferris explained. The clinical trials for diabetes and obesity used an injectable version of this drug. This way the drug bypasses the digestive system, allowing more of the drug to get into the bloodstream. But the Alzheimer’s trial is testing a pill form of semaglutide which means that less of the drug will reach the brain.

Eli Lilly’s diabetes drug Mounjaro is expected to be approved for weight loss by the FDA in the coming months. Since the active ingredient tirzepatide also targets a similar pathway in the brain, tirzepatide could also eventually be tested for treating Alzheimer’s as well. Lilly’s patents on the drug mention Alzheimer’s disease as a potential use case.  

Diabetes and obesity are two of the eight most important risk factors for Alzheimer’s, which are associated with about one in every three cases. While drugs like Wegovy, Ozempic, and Mounjaro aren’t a magic solution, the drugs help some people lower their blood glucose levels and lose weight. If the drugs prove promising in Alzheimer’s trials, it strengthens the case for turning down the brain’s hunger signals to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s.

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