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Weight loss injection could reduce heart attack risk by 20%

Participants taking the medication semaglutide showed a 20% lower risk of heart attack, stroke, or death due to cardiovascular disease, which could be a ‘gamechanger’ for millions of people

A widely used weight loss injection could lower the risk of heart attacks and benefit the cardiovascular health of millions of adults across the UK, says new research by the University College London (UCL).

Researchers at UCL found that semaglutide – a prescription drug offered by the NHS which suppresses appetite – could have a positive impact on blood sugar, blood pressure or inflammation, as well as direct effects on the heart muscle and vessels. These benefits were seen in people even when they did not lose weight.

Professor John Deanfield, director of the National Institute for Cardiovascular Outcomes Research and the lead author of the study said: ‘This fantastic drug really is a gamechanger. This [study] suggests that here are potentially alternative mechanisms for that improved cardiovascular outcome with semaglutide beyond weight loss. We now have a class of drugs that could equally transform many chronic diseases of ageing,’ he said.

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The study, presented at the European Congress of Obesity, involved 17,604 adults aged 45 and over with a body mass index of over 27 from across 41 countries. The participants, who had also previously experienced a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack, were prescribed either a 2.5 mg weekly dose of semaglutide or a placebo for an average period of 40 months.

After 20 weeks on the drug, 62% of patients on semaglutide had lost more than 5% of their bodyweight compared with 10% in a placebo group. But the risk for heart attack reduced by 20% for patients who lost more than 5% of their bodyweight as well as in those who lost less than 5% or gained weight.

Commenting on these findings, Deanfield said: ‘There are many people living overweight or with obesity, who have struggled to improve their weight, and these drugs, for that reason alone, produce an important clinical opportunity. These are drugs that will also improve their background medical problems.’

However, some clinicians in the field have expressed caution with regards to the benefits and use of the drug, particularly with respect to a wider roll-out amongst patients.

Professor Rameen Shakur, director of the integrative and genomics unit at the University of Brighton, said: ‘We are unclear on the mechanism and biological process by which semaglutide might reduce cardiac mortality per se. I don’t think it is commercially realistic to put whole populations on a medical therapy until you know how the biological system works.’

‘Interestingly, there remains a risk of pancreatitis and some rare thyroid cancers which is often not stated,’ he said. ‘This should also be monitored during the course of patient use.’