Could GLP-1 Drugs Reduce Obesity-Related Cancers in the Future?

Could GLP-1 Drugs Reduce Obesity-Related Cancers in the Future?

Key Takeaways

Obesity and overweight are linked to a higher risk of many common cancers.Research has suggested that GLP-1 drugs, like Wegovy and Zepbound, may play a role in improving the function of certain anti-cancer cells.Although maintaining a healthy weight may reduce cancer risk, current guidelines emphasize achieving this through diet and physical activity rather than weight-management drugs.

Obesity and overweight are associated with a higher risk of at least 13 types of cancer, including breast, kidney, and colorectal cancer.

There are over 600,000 obesity-related cancer diagnoses in the United States each year. Researchers have also warned of an “impending explosive increase” in obesity-related cancers in the young adult population.

However, GLP-1 agonist drugs such as Wegovy and Zepbound are promising significant weight loss and even a reduction in heart disease risk. Could this newer class of obesity medications potentially help reduce the risk of obesity-related cancer, too?

“Obesity is a complex disease of low-grade, chronic inflammation on a cellular level,” Amanda Velazquez, MD, DABOM, director of obesity medicine at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, told Verywell in an email. “Compounding this are our genetics and our environment, which can lead to the perfect storm to develop cancer, unfortunately.”

Chronic inflammation could be one explanation for why obesity is linked to cancer. As fat cells grow and multiply, the increased inflammation causes those cells in organ systems to malfunction, according to Velazquez.

Although maintaining a healthy weight is a top recommendation for reducing cancer risk, current guidelines emphasize achieving this through diet and physical activity rather than weight-management drugs.

Velazquez said more long-term prospective studies on GLP-1 drugs and cancer risk are needed, but there’s hope that new research can show “reduced rates of obesity through increased access to medical treatments could lead to reduced rates of cancer.”

GLP-1 Drugs Might Improve Immune Cell Function

Some researchers are working to understand the connection between obesity and natural killer (NK) cells, a type of immune cell that can recognize cancer cells and limit tumor growth. NK cells are less functional in people with obesity, but restoring these cells might reduce obesity-related cancer risks, according to a 2018 study published in Nature.

A small 20-person study published in the journal Obesity suggested that GLP-1 drugs could improve NK cell function in people with obesity, regardless of whether the drugs resulted in weight loss or not.

GLP-1 drugs can improve many obesity-related risk factors that contribute to cancer initiation and progression, according to Andrew Hogan, PhD, a senior author of the study and an associate professor in immunology at Maynooth University in Ireland. These factors include excess body weight, systemic inflammation, insulin resistance, and a loss of immune cell function.

“GLP-1 therapies are not and will not be anti-cancer treatment,” Hogan told Verywell in an email. “However, they might reduce the risk of developing cancer, in a cohort of people—people living with obesity—who are one of the most at-risk groups for developing cancer.”

Unexpected Impacts of Obesity Drugs

The impact of GLP-1 drugs is seeping through various aspects of life beyond weight loss. Some people are buying less food at grocery stores, while others find that their addiction to certain habits has subsided. However, scientists are still learning about the unintended side effects or benefits of these drugs.

Zepbound, like Wegovy, has a label warning that it may cause thyroid tumors or cancer. But the European Medicines Agency, the European Union’s equivalent of the FDA, recently said that evidence doesn’t suggest that GLP-1 drugs are linked to thyroid cancer.

“As an oncologist, I would counsel any patients interested in the GLP-1 drugs to consult with their physician to see if they are a candidate for these medications and to understand their family history and cancer risk,” Sudarsan Kollimuttathuillam, MD, a medical oncologist and an assistant clinical professor at City of Hope Orange County in California, told Verywell in an email.

If GLP-1 drugs are right for a patient, Kollimuttathuillam said, they should be used in addition to—not instead of—lifestyle interventions such as eating a nutritious diet, managing stress, sleeping enough, and exercising regularly.

“Because obesity is a cancer risk factor, there is certainly potential for using GLP-1 drugs for preventing obesity-related cancers,” Kollimuttathuillam said. “Time will tell if we see fewer obesity-related cancers in the future.”

What This Means For You

GLP-1 drugs have not been proven to reduce cancer risk. However, they may improve obesity-related risk factors such as excess body weight, systemic inflammation, and insulin resistance.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Stephanie Brown
Stephanie Brown is a nutrition writer, educator, and culinary instructor.

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