Anyone who follows these pages is aware of the fact that we desperately lack better medical treatments for obesity.
Last year, Health Canada approved the glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) analogue liraglutide (Saxenda(R)) for obesity treatment, which although effective and generally well-tolerated, has to be administered by daily injections.
Now, the results of the SUSTAIN-6 trial, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, show that the once weekly injection of the GLP-1 analogue semaglutide, not only decreases cardiovascular events, but also significantly lowers body weight, a promising finding for future obesity treatment with this drug.
The SUSTAIN 6 trial randomised 3297 patients with type 2 diabetes to once-weekly semaglutide (0.5 mg or 1.0 mg) or placebo for 104 weeks.
At baseline, 2735 of the patients (83.0%) had established cardiovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, or both.
The primary outcome (MACE) occurred in 108 of 1648 patients (6.6%) in the semaglutide group and in 146 of 1649 patients (8.9%) in the placebo group (hazard ratio, 0.74).
Nonfatal myocardial infarction occurred in 2.9% of the patients receiving semaglutide and in 3.9% of those receiving placebo (hazard ratio, 0.74); nonfatal stroke occurred in 1.6% and 2.7%, (hazard ratio, 0.61).
While average body weight at week 104 remained stable in the placebo group, it decreased by 3.6 kg in the semaglutide 0.5 mg group and and 4.9 kg in the semaglutide 1.0 mg group.
While this may not seem spectacular, it is important to remember that weight loss is notoriously difficult in patients with type 2 diabetes and that this was a diabetes and not an obesity trial, in which case participants would have also been counselled to change their diet and activity levels to achieve weight loss.
Thus, one can only speculate on what the differences in body weight would have been had the participants been actually trying to lose weight.
That said, it was perhaps surprising to note that fewer serious adverse events occurred in the semaglutide group, although more patients discontinued treatment because of adverse events, mainly gastrointestinal.
It will be interesting to see how well semaglutide fares in studies in which this treatment is assessed for the obesity indication, which will hopefully bring us closer to a once-weekly medication for obesity.
In the meantime, once-daily liraglutide 3.0 mg is certainly a welcome addition to medical management of obesity, but clearly there is more to come in terms of harnessing GLP-1 for obesity management.
Disclaimer: I have received consulting and speaking honoraria from Novo Nordisk, the makers of liraglutide and semaglutide
Every two years the Canadian Obesity Network holds its National Obesity Summit – the only national obesity meeting in Canada covering all aspects of obesity – from basic and population science to prevention and health promotion to clinical management and health policy.
Anyone who has been to one of the past four Summits has experienced the cross-disciplinary networking and breaking down of silos (the Network takes networking very seriously).
Of all the scientific meetings I go to around the world, none has quite the informal and personal feel of the Canadian Obesity Summit – despite all differences in interests and backgrounds, everyone who attends is part of the same community – working on different pieces of the puzzle that only makes sense when it all fits together in the end.
The 5th Canadian Obesity Summit will be held at the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies (which in itself should make it worth attending the summit), April 25-29, 2017.
Yesterday, the call went out for abstracts and workshops – the latter an opportunity for a wide range of special interest groups to meet and discuss their findings (the last Summit featured over 20 separate workshops – perhaps a tad too many, which is why the program committee will be far more selective this time around).
So here is what the program committee is looking for:
- Basic science – cellular, molecular, physiological or neuronal related aspects of obesity
- Epidemiology – epidemiological techniques/methods to address obesity related questions in populations studies
- Prevention of obesity and health promotion interventions – research targeting different populations, settings, and intervention levels (e.g. community-based, school, workplace, health systems, and policy)
- Weight bias and weight-based discrimination – including prevalence studies as well as interventions to reduce weight bias and weight-based discrimination; both qualitative and quantitative studies
- Pregnancy and maternal health – studies across clinical, health services and population health themes
- Childhood and adolescent obesity – research conducted with children and or adolescents and reports on the correlates, causes and consequences of pediatric obesity as well as interventions for treatment and prevention.
- Obesity in adults and older adults – prevalence studies and interventions to address obesity in these populations
- Health services and policy research – reaserch addressing issues related to obesity management services which idenitfy the most effective ways to organize, manage, finance, and deliver high quality are, reduce medical errors or improve patient safety
- Bariatric surgery – issues that are relevant to metabolic or weight loss surgery
- Clinical management – clinical management of overweight and obesity across the life span (infants through to older adults) including interventions for prevention and treatment of obesity and weight-related comorbidities
- Rehabilitation – investigations that explore opportunities for engagement in meaningful and health-building occupations for people with obesity
- Diversity – studies that are relevant to diverse or underrepresented populations
- eHealth/mHealth – research that incorporates social media, internet and/or mobile devices in prevention and treatment
- Cancer – research relevant to obesity and cancer
…..and of course anything else related to obesity.
Deadline for submission is October 24, 2016
To submit an abstract or workshop – click here
For more information on the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit – click here
For sponsorship opportunities – click here
Looking forward to seeing you in Banff next year!
Melanocyte-stimulating hormone (a-MSH), which is produced from the hormone precursor proopiomelanocortin (POMC) and acts on the hypothalamic melanocortin-4 receptor, plays a key role in the regulation of satiety and energy expenditure.
In very rare instances, mutations of the gene coding for POMC can cause severe early onset obesity characterised by increased appetite. Due to other effects of POMC deficiency, patients will present with pale skin, red hair and clinical signs of hypocortisolism.
Now, a paper by Peter Kühnen and colleagues published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that treating patients with the melanocortin-4 receptor agonist, setmelanotide, can result in significant reduction in appetite and body weight.
The open-label study was performed in two adult patients with POMC deficiency, in cooperation with Rhythm Pharmaceuticals, which provided the study medication and regulatory support.
Both patients weighed around 150 Kg with marked hyperphagia and both responded to treatment with a substantial reduction in appetite and dramatic weight loss of over 20 Kg over 12-13 weeks.
After a brief interruption, one patient was again treated for 42 weeks, ultimately losing 51 kg (32.9% of her initial body weight).
As the authors note,
“Setmelanotide appeared to completely reverse hyperphagia, leading to impressive weight loss and normalization of insulin resistance. More important, both patients reported a dramatic improvement in their quality of life after the initiation of setmelanotide therapy. Moreover, the substantial and ongoing reduction in body weight was similar to the changes observed after leptin administration in patients with leptin deficiency.”
Over all the treatment was well tolerated with no major adverse effects.
While these observations were made in very rare patients with documented POMC deficiency, these findings may have broader implications for individuals with more common “garden-variety” obesity.
“Both patients described here had very high leptin levels before treatment, suggesting leptin resistance. In patients with proopiomelanocortin deficiency, the leptin signal is probably not properly transduced into anorexigenic responses, given the lack of melanocyte-stimulating hormone. Setmelanotide substitutes for melanocyte-stimulating hormone and binds at its receptor, thus overcoming leptin resistance. On the basis of the observation that obese patients without known genetic abnormalities have severe leptin resistance and regain weight owing to a post-dieting increase in appetite, we speculate that setmelanotide may also be effective in nongenetic forms of obesity.”
Appropriate studies in patients with non-POMC deficient obesity are currently underway.
A popular narrative by proponents of low-glycemic index foods is the notion that high-glycemic index foods lead to a surge in plasma glucose, which in turn stimulates a spike in insulin levels, resulting in a rapid drop in blood glucose levels and an increase in appetite (“crash and crave”).
While this narrative is both biologically plausible and has been popularised by countless low-GI diets and products, the actual science of whether this story really holds true is less robust that you may think.
Now, a study by Bernd Schultes and colleagues, published in Appetite, seriously challenges this narrative.
The study was specifically designed to test the hypothesis that inducing glycemic fluctuations by intravenous glucose infusion is associated with concurrent changes in hunger, appetite, and satiety.
Using a single blind, counter-balanced crossover study in 15 healthy young men, participants were either given an i.v. infusion of 500 ml of a solution containing 50 g glucose or 0.9% saline, respectively, over a 1-h period.
On each occasion, the infusions were performed one hour after a light breakfast (284 kcal).
I.v. glucose markedly increased glucose and insulin concentrations (peak glucose level: 9.7 vs. 5.3 mmol/l in the control group); peak insulin level: 370 vs. 109) followed by a sharp decline in glycaemia to a nadir of 3.0 in the glucose study vs. 3.9 mmol/l at the corresponding time in the control condition.
Despite this wide glycemic fluctuation in the glucose infusion condition, the subjective feelings of hunger, appetite satiety, and fullness did not differ from the control condition throughout the experiment.
Clearly, these findings speak against the conventional narrative that fluctuations in glycemia and insulinemia represent major signals in the short-term regulation of hunger and satiety.
Or, as the authors put it,
Our findings might also challenge the popular concept of low glycemic index diets to lose body weight. Advocates of this dietary approach often argue that large glycemic (and concurrent insulinemic) fluctuations induced by the intake of high glycemic index foods can trigger feelings of hunger and, thus, on the long run favor weight gain. Our results argue against this notion since the sharp drop in circulating glucose after the end of the glucose infusion remained without effect on hunger ratings, at least within the time period covered by our experiment.
As they further note, these findings may explain why,
“…several clinical dietary intervention trials have failed to show an advantage of low glycemic index dietary approaches for weight loss in overweight/obese subjects in comparison with other dietary approaches.”
The lesson here, I guess is that, just because there is a seemingly compelling narrative to support an idea, it does not mean that that’s how biology in real life actually works.
Next, in this miniseries on arguments for and against calling obesity a disease, I turn to the issue of stigma.
One of the biggest arguments against calling obesity, is the fear that doing so can increase stigma against people living with obesity.
This is nonsense, because I do not think it is at all possible for anything to make stigma and the discrimination of people living with obesity worse than it already is.
If anything, calling obesity a disease (defined as excess or abnormal body fat that impairs your health), could well serve to reduce that stigma by changing the narrative around obesity.
The current narrative sees obesity largely as a matter of personal choice involving poor will power to control your diet and unwillingness to engage in even a modest amount of regular physical activity.
In contrast, the term ‘disease’ conjures up the notion of complex biology including genetics, epigenetics, neurohormonal dysregulation, environmental toxins, mental health issues and other factors including social determinants of health, that many will accept are beyond the simple control of the individual.
This is not to say that other diseases do not carry stigma. This has and remains the case for diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS to depression – but, the stigma surrounding these conditions has been vastly reduced by changing the narrative of these illnesses.
Today, we are more likely to think of depression (and other mental illnesses) as a problem related to “chemicals in the brain”, than something that people can pull out of with sheer motivation and will power.
Perhaps changing the public narrative around obesity, from simply a matter of motivation and will power, to one that invokes the complex sociopsychobiology that really underlies this disorder, will, over time, also help reduce the stigma of obesity.
Once we see obesity as something that can affect anyone (it can), for which we have no easy solutions (we don’t), and which often requires medical or surgical treatment (it does) best administered by trained and regulated health professionals (like for other diseases), we can perhaps start destigmatizing this condition and change the climate of shame and blame that people with this disease face everyday.