Weight-loss drugs ‘gold rush’ with 322 in development for £120bn-a-year market

More than 300 anti-obesity drugs are under active development worldwide amid a pharmaceutical industry “gold rush” to harness the medical and financial benefits of a tide of breakthrough weight-loss treatments. Drug producers are locked in a ferocious battle to try to secure a share of the burgeoning market for weight-loss medicines which has seen the sector’s two biggest players – Denmark’s Novo Nordisk, maker of Wegovy, and American giant Eli Lilly, which makes Zepbound – rocket to a joint valuation of more than $1.3trn (£1.03trn) as their treatments reach millions of patients worldwide. According to forecasts, the market for anti-obesity medications could be worth between £64bn and £120bn a year by 2030. The potential for these medications to become tools for treating a broad range of conditions, both related and unrelated to excessive weight, was underlined on Tuesday with the publication of research showing that users of semaglutide, the active ingredient in Wegovy and Novo Nordisk’s diabetes drug Ozempic, can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke or death due to cardiovascular disease by 20 per cent. Separate studies are also underway into the potential benefits of semaglutide, and other compounds in the emerging class of drugs which mimic the action of an appetite-suppressing hormone known as GLP-1, in treating conditions ranging from alcohol addiction to cognitive impairment diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Read NextAccording to data gathered by Airfinity, a UK-based health analytics company, the number of weight loss medications being actively developed worldwide has leapt to 322 from a little over 200 in recent months, with nearly 80 either in clinical trials or approved for treatment. Among the drugs currently in advanced trials are survodutide, jointly developed by two German and Danish companies, which is showing promising results in not only treating a serious liver condition but also in regenerating tissue in the organ. The stampede to develop GLP-1 drugs, many in combination with other hormones, is producing what Airfinity described as a “modern-day gold rush” fuelled by inbuilt demand from billions of potential patients awaiting effective treatments. According to the World Obesity Federation, a charity, close to half the world’s population is on course to be overweight or obese by 2030. Bhaskar Bhushan, a cardiometabolic disease expert at Airfinity, said established players like Novo Nordisk and their up-and-coming rivals in an increasingly competitive market are eager to demonstrate broader benefits to their drugs as a way of shoring up, or grabbing, market share. He told i: “If you take semaglutide, there is no other medicine quite like it at the moment. If someone is worried about cognitive impairment, or they want to be a bit fitter or have a lower cardiovascular risk, all these customer-driven demands can synergise into one medication. There is a currently a lot of activity by pharmaceutical companies to get a slice of this pie.” Dr Henrik Sillesen, the Airfinity’s chief medical officer, previously said: “Obesity drugs are a modern-day gold rush for drugmakers. Currently the market is a two-horse race with Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, but this is ripe to grow with enough demand for many more products.” With the average cost of bringing a drug from the drawing board to market reaching £1bn or more, only a fraction of the 322 anti-obesity medications currently under development will eventually make it to pharmacy shelves.But there is fierce competition to produce next-generation drugs which offer greater convenience, lower price and higher efficacy than the two market leaders in the shape of Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide and tirzepatide, which is the active ingredient in Eli Lilly’s newly-launched Zepbound. Both drugs have been shown to result in weight loss of between 15 per cent and 22 per cent.At least seven entirely new drugs or therapies are currently in advanced development. Several promise to overcome the disadvantages of Wegovy or Zepbound, which must be taken via a weekly injection and can cause nausea, by either coming in pill form or a longer-lasting monthly injection. Amgen, a California-based biotech company, is working on a monthly injection which induces sustained weight-loss and, unlike existing therapies, may result in that weight not being regained once the drug stops being taken or the dose is significantly reduced. Danish company Zealand Pharma is working on a drug which rather than suppressing appetite, harnesses a hormone which instead induces satiety, thereby avoiding nausea. Read NextOther companies, including Regeneron and BioAge, are working on drugs to be taken alongside Wegovy and Zepbound which will improve the “quality” of weight loss by reducing the amount of lean muscle shed by the body. But it could still be years before such medications reach patients. In the meantime, the two market leaders are also looking to shore up their current dominance. Eli Lilly is working on retatrutide, a weekly injection which has recorded an average 24 per cent reduction in weight by both suppressing appetite and encouraging the body to burn more fat. Novo Nordisk has also perfected a pill version of semaglutide, though its introduction has been delayed because it requires much higher quantities of the active ingredient which in turn is in short supply. Indeed, with 42 million people worldwide now using Wegovy and some 25,000 Americans being prescribed the drug each week – alongside similarly dramatic uptake of Zepbound after it was approved for use in America late last year – there is growing pressure to lower the cost of the weight loss drugs to make them more widely available. The availability of semaglutide on the NHS as a weight loss treatment – under the name Wegovy – is currently limited at least in part due to limited evidence on the long-term cost effectiveness of the therapy. Semaglutide is approved for use on the NHS as Ozempic for diabetes.There is some early evidence that patients could reap the benefit of increased competition. Novo Nordisk announced earlier this month that it was cutting the price of Wegovy in the face of increased competition from Eli Lilly as the Danish firm recorded a 28 per cent leap in annual profits to £2.9bn. But the desire to further reduce the cost of these key weapons in the fight against obesity is set to only intensify. Bernie Sanders, the US Democrat senator and former rival to Joe Biden for his party’s presidential ticket, has ordered a probe into what he described as the “outrageously high price” of Wegovy in America, where its list price of $1,350 is 14 times that in the UK. Novo Nordisk pointed out that it has reduced the net price of semaglutide in the US by 40 per cent since its launch.


Recommended For You