Walk the Golden Path

Innovation and Competition in Obesity Gains Momentum

Could it be that innovation and competition for better obesity care will overtake the health problem of obesity? We see several signs pointing to this. A decade ago, it was tough to get FDA to take obesity innovation seriously. So big pharma research was running from the challenge. Sanofi had invested heavily in developing rimonabant for obesity, but couldn’t get an approval. CEO Chris Viehbacher explained:

“As long as we’re so worried about obesity being a lifestyle choice – that anyone can choose to be fat or thin – then I don’t think we’re going to have an ability to develop drugs. I don’t think right now we have a regulatory environment, a risk/benefit environment that would allow me as a CEO to take the risk of developing a drug for obesity.”

But today, we see a very different situation.

Wegovy Taking Off

Just six weeks after the Wegovy launch, prescriptions for this new anti-obesity med already match the level of Saxenda. Reaching that level took six years for Saxenda. Novo Nordisk CEO Lars Fruergaard Jorgensen explained how things are changing:

“I think the [COVID-19] pandemic has underlined the importance of treating obesity more than ever. There is a general sentiment building that it is a disease and it is a disease that takes medical intervention.”

Based on these positive signs, the company has raised its forecasts for the drug. Analysts say that obesity treatments will be a primary driver for earnings for years to come.

Serious Partnerships for Further Innovation

As a result, serious investments into innovation for obesity care are growing briskly. AstraZeneca has struck a deal with Regeneron to develop new anti-obesity drugs based on insights into the GPR75 gene. Barely a month has passed since Regeneron published important findings about the genetic basis for protecting some people from obesity.

Regeneron and AstraZeneca think that they can find synergy to develop breakthroughs in obesity care.

And these are not the only companies making serious investments. Lilly is scaling up the clinical development program for tirzepatide in obesity. Pfizer has a new oral GLP-1R agonist – danuglipron – showing promise for obesity treatment. More will follow as the financial incentives grow.

Price Competition and Other Challenges

Make no mistake. The path that lies ahead for obesity care has big challenges. For one thing, price is a problem. Saxenda and Wegovy are costly – roughly $1,300 per month. Compared to other new drugs, this is not terribly high. But it is a problem because many drug plans discriminate and refuse to pay for obesity meds. Though this may be changing, it won’t happen overnight.

Price competition from biosimilars may help. These are a new sort of generic competition for large complex molecules like the peptides used to treat obesity. Biosimilars are a factor that will take time to exert their full effect in this market. Only last month, FDA approved the first biosimilar insulin product.

Then there’s also the issue of overselling weight loss. Many consumers want a quick fix for obesity. But weight loss is not the complete answer because obesity is a chronic disease. Losing weight is a step in the process of managing this condition. Keeping it under control means taking meds and other steps to maintain good health. False promises of weight loss “fixes” will bring disappointments and backlash.

It has happened before. It can happen again if new obesity treatments turn into weight loss hype.

Click here and here to read more about the early success of Wegovy and here to read more about the AstraZeneca-Regeneron deal.

Walk the Golden Path, painting by Josef Čapek / WikiArt

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August 9, 2021