Obesity rates for children and adolescents are now alarmingly high in many countries, with such significant implications for young lives that the World Health Organization considers childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.”
The authors of the new peer-reviewed study, published Wednesday in the journal Obesity, found that semaglutide was “highly effective” in reducing body mass index among teens.
The weights of 134 clinically obese adolescents were monitored for 68 weeks, with participants given a 2.4 milligram injection of semaglutide weekly. By the end of the study, 45 percent of the group recorded a drop in BMI to below the clinical threshold for obesity.
Just 12 percent of participants in a separate group who received a placebo were no longer considered to be obese at the end of the trial. Both groups also got lifestyle counseling and had a daily goal of 60 minutes of moderate- to high-intensity physical activity.
The finding showed the drug is an effective treatment, said Aaron Kelly, an expert in pediatric obesity at the University of Minnesota Medical School who co-wrote the study and presented his findings Thursday at the European Congress on Obesity.
“It makes it easier for them to engage in intuitive eating, to be fuller faster and not be hungry all the time,” Kelly said in an interview. “If you were assigned semaglutide — versus the placebo — you had a 23-fold higher odds of dropping down below the clinical cutoff for obesity.”
The study adds to existing research that a weekly self-administered injection of Wegovy or Ozempic, which are manufactured by Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, can be effective in reducing body weight — more so than older generations of diet pills — and lowering some of the health risks associated with obesity.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration first approved Ozempic to treat Type 2 diabetes. The agency approved Wegovy’s use as a treatment for chronic weight management in adults in 2021 and in teens late last year. That action sparked a dramatic increase in demand for the drug, fueled in part by celebrities touting its benefits across social media and leading to shortages at certain doses, according to the FDA.
The latest report was based on data from a trial at the center of a study published in December in the New England Journal of Medicine. But researchers used the results to focus on the drug’s effect on obesity classifications rather than simple BMI outcomes.
“It’s a different way to describe the outcomes in more clinically relevant way,” said Kelly, who also co-wrote the December paper.
Semaglutide works by mimicking the naturally occurring hormone GLP-1, or glucagon-like peptide 1, to target receptors in the brain, reduce a patient’s appetite and slow the passage of meals through the gut.
It helps to “normalize the body systems related to eating and energy regulation. It essentially takes the edge off,” Kelly said.
Doctors are touting the drug as the latest in a new generation of weight-loss medication that could help patients struggling with chronic weight management. According to the most recent data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 22 percent of Americans ages 12 to 19 are obese. Among adults, the rate rises to 42 percent. Being overweight or obese increases the lifelong risk of many health conditions and diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, stroke and heart disease.
The use of BMI — based on a person’s weight and height — has been criticized by some obesity experts and dietitians as being overused as a metric. They say it doesn’t take it into account racial or ethnic differences in body type, among other factors.
Despite semaglutide’s effectiveness in the trial, Kelly cautions that it should not be considered a quick fix to obesity. Many doctors expect patients will have to take the drug indefinitely to continue benefiting from its treatment, although clinical trials have not yet proved this.
Obesity is a chronic disease, Kelly noted, and treatment must be sustained. “Especially if you developed obesity in childhood, you have a very high likelihood of struggling with it your entire life,” Kelly said. “If you engage in any sort of treatment for obesity, it is going to be for the long-term.”