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Pfizer’s twice-daily weight loss pill joins a long list of obesity drug flops

Pfizer’s twice-daily weight loss pill joins a long list of obesity drug flops

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Pfizer’s twice-daily version of its experimental weight loss pill has now joined a long list of other scrapped drugs that aimed to treat obesity but came with unintended consequences. 

The drugmaker on Friday said it will stop developing the twice-daily treatment, danuglipron, after obese patients taking the drug lost significant weight but experienced high rates of adverse side effects in a midstage clinical trial. Pfizer noted that it will release data on a once-daily version of the pill next year, which will “inform the path forward.” 

The announcement came six months after Pfizer scrapped a different once-daily pill in June, citing elevated liver enzymes. Pfizer’s move to drop two obesity drug candidates in just a few months demonstrates how difficult it is to develop an effective, safe and tolerable treatment for losing weight, even after recent breakthrough medications entered the space. 

That includes Novo Nordisk‘s Wegovy and diabetes treatment Ozempic as well as Eli Lilly‘s diabetes drug Mounjaro. They have all skyrocketed in popularity — and slipped into shortages — over the last year for safely and successfully causing significant weight loss. An estimated 40% of U.S. adults are obese, making those drugs the pharmaceutical industry’s newest cash cow. 

But before the current weight loss industry gold rush, the path to treating obesity was strewn with failures dating back decades.

The main reason many experimental treatments were scrapped by drugmakers, rejected by U.S. regulators or eventually pulled from the market were unintended side effects, including elevated liver enzymes, cancer risks, cardiovascular risks and serious psychiatric problems, such as suicide. 

Eisai’s lorcaserin

One of the most recent casualties among experimental obesity drugs is Japanese drugmaker Eisai’s lorcaserin, which was removed from the market in 2020 due to causing an increased risk of cancer in patients. 

The Food and Drug Administration greenlit lorcaserin in 2012 based on several clinical trials but required Eisai to conduct a larger and longer study on the drug after the approval.

That study on about 12,000 patients over five years found that more people taking lorcaserin were diagnosed with cancer compared with those taking a placebo, which led the FDA to pull the drug from the market.  

Lorcaserin, marketed under the brand name Belviq, didn’t appear to gain much traction while it was commercially available. In its full-year 2019 earnings, Eisai reported that Lorcaserin had sales of $28.1 million in the U.S. for the year. Global sales of the drug were about $42 million. Eisai’s total sales for the year were roughly $4.42 billion.

Sanofi’s rimonabant

Abbott Laboratories’ sibutramine

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