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Drugs Show Potential for Weight Loss, But Hands Off Unless You're Diabetic

Posted Sep 16 2008 9:56am
A few years ago, when a new injectable drug— Byetta —showed promise helping type 2 diabetics control their blood sugar and lose weight, a funny thing happened: Non-diabetics began trying the drug ( off-label ) as a weight-loss solution.

This week, the press is trumpeting the weight-loss potential of another injectable diabetes drug, Symlin (pramlintide acetate). There’s nothing new about the drug’s ability to help diabetics manage their blood sugar and lose weight; past studies have already illustrated the potential.

But new research released this week at a European diabetes meeting put Symlin and weight loss back in the news. Two studies show the drug in combination with existing weight loss drugs or lifestyle programs helped non-diabetics lose weight. Unfortunately, the studies both have limitations (in the first study, a control group taking only Symlin lost just a few pounds more than a control group taking a placebo, and in the second, the added weight loss on Symlin was also relatively small).

Nonetheless, this new attention will no doubt make the drug attractive to non-diabetics.

Struggling with my own weight issues, I understand the quest for anything that can help. But here are three reasons why Byetta and Symlin make poor choices for non-diabetics:

  • There are real consequences to taking a prescription drug for something other than what it was intended. Byetta and Symlin have well-established side effects and risks. (Byetta has been in the news lately, linked to deaths from pancreatitis.) But for diabetics, the risks of complications from not controlling their blood sugar can be greater.
  • Both drugs are prohibitively expensive—around $250 for a 30-day supply. Insurance companies often balk at paying for Byetta for diabetics. I can’t imagine they would foot the bill for non-diabetics.
  • Byetta and Symlin are not pills you pop. They’re injected under the skin. Is that really better than exercise and diet adherence, or even the approved weight loss drugs on the market?

Amylin Pharmaceuticals, which makes both drugs and funded one of the studies released this week, has actually looked at marketing Symlin as a weight-loss drug.

But until any of these drugs have been approved for that use, non-diabetics should probably look for another way to take off the pounds and leave the diabetes drugs to diabetics.

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