There are TikTok hashtags with millions of followers, endless column inches over celebrities’ waistlines and streams of media coverage when trial results come out. It is rare that a new medicine gets so much attention. Then again, it is even rarer that a licensed drug causes safe and rapid weight loss with minimal effort.
A year ago, most people hadn’t heard of semaglutide, a drug developed to treat type 2 diabetes around a decade ago under the brand name Ozempic. Then, in 2021, it was approved in the US as a weight-loss aid under the name Wegovy. The medicine can cause people to lose a whopping 15 per cent of their body weight.
The impact of this new class of medicines could be unprecedented – potentially bringing to an end the world’s growing obesity epidemic. “I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet,” says Jonathan Campbell at Duke University in North Carolina, who investigates how these drugs affect the body.
For one thing, Wegovy was just the start. The next generation of these drugs is in development and will be cheaper, easier to use and, crucially, even more potent. What’s more, emerging evidence suggests Wegovy and its ilk work better when given at a younger age, so doctors are exploring their use in teenagers and young children. This raises the prospect of switching from obesity treatment to prevention. “We have watched the obesity landscape change dramatically over the last 40 years,” says Campbell. “Now, maybe we’re at a turning point where that goes backwards.”
Why obesity is on the rise
The rise in obesity has been happening since about the 1970s …