Increasingly obesity is being viewed by scientists as a disease rather than as a lifestyle problem. It follows therefore that scientists now view obesity as a problem that can be remedied by drugs rather by dieting & exercise. Enter, the wonder drug that can cure obesity: “Wegovy, made by Danish drugmaker Novo Nordisk, is the first in what is shaping up to be a new generation of obesity treatments, which use a hormone to regulate appetite. (The name is the result of a nebulous bureaucratic process involving pharmaceutical regulators and the company’s marketers.) The average patient in the study in which Robillard participated lost 15 per cent of their body weight, about three times more than on previous drugs. Nearly a third of them lost almost as much as they would after weight-loss surgery. Robillard lost 57 pounds. The US Food and Drug Administration approved Wegovy for general use in June 2021.”
Wegovy is administered through a weekly injection and already has celebrities backing it: “Unpaid celebrity endorsements include venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who says the drug completely changed his relationship with food, and Elon Musk, who has cited it on Twitter. Novo Nordisk recently more than doubled its sales targets for obesity drugs to $3.7bn by 2025.”
So how does Wegovy work and why is to so effective? The secret lies with a hormone discovered produced by our small intestine called GLP-1 which was discovered by scientists in 1987: “When we eat, cells in the small intestine secrete GLP-1, causing the release of insulin, which in turn tempers fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
Back then, scientists thought the hormone held promise helping diabetics restore normal insulin production. While experimenting with how to create a new GLP-1-based drug in the 1990s, Novo Nordisk lab scientists noticed their mice and rats began to lose weight. The hormone’s effect on the brain, they discovered, is to reduce appetite and create a feeling of fullness. This is exactly how it worked for Robillard in 2018; she felt her mind freed from its obsession with eating.
Peter Kurtzhals is talking to me over Zoom from a conference room at the company’s Danish headquarters. A senior scientist at Novo Nordisk, he cuts the figure of a no-nonsense researcher but lights up describing why the academics who discovered the hormone should be considered for a Nobel Prize. He says GLP-1 may be the pharmaceutical equivalent of a Swiss army knife because Novo Nordisk is also testing drugs based on the hormone to treat kidney disease, an increasingly prevalent liver condition known as NASH, even Alzheimer’s. “It’s kind of amazing, philosophically, that we have a natural hormone that can be pharmacologically used in such a variety of conditions,” he says.”
Wegovy therefore is a classic case study of how a great pharma company, Novo Nordisk, uses its decades of expertise in insulin to create a new wonder drug. But the story doesn’t stop there. Equally impressive is the marketing plan that Novo has put in place to popularise Wegovy: “Novo Nordisk’s next challenge is to convert obese people who never seek treatment. Which is where Queen Latifah comes in. The drugmaker is paying the actor to lead an unbranded campaign called “It’s Bigger Than Me”. In online videos, Latifah plays an emergency room doctor lecturing as an overweight patient is wheeled in suffering from “stigma”, for example. She never explicitly says the drug’s name. At live events with experts in New York, Los Angeles and Houston, Novo Nordisk hopes Latifah succeeded in stirring up demand. A famous black woman, the company hopes, will appeal to the four out of five African American females who are obese.”
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