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Tirzepatide, for treatment of adults with obesity, is on the fast track for FDA's OK

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now. Obesity drugs appear to keep getting better. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Frank Rayfiel (ph) is a retired media executive in his 70s whose struggle with weight goes back decades. At one point, he weighed about 340 pounds, and he told me it was a struggle to help his daughter learn to ride a bike.

FRANK RAYFIEL: You know how it's done. You run in back of the bike with your hand on the seat, and when she's a few steps away, you say, hey, look, you're doing it, right? Well, I couldn't run after her. And it was really burdensome to me. I hated that.

AUBREY: Rayfiel tried lots of diets, including keto, and he lost a lot of weight. But when his weight loss plateaued and he continued to need insulin, his appetite increased. Then early this year, his doctor told him about a new drug that had just become available.

RAYFIEL: Within two months, I lost 10% of my body weight without really trying. So it's that without really trying thing that's amazing.

AUBREY: Rayfiel is taking a drug called tirzepatide, which is currently approved for people with diabetes and marketed as Mounjaro. Now the FDA has fast-tracked review of new evidence showing the drug is effective for a wider range of people with weight-related issues. The drug is similar to the blockbuster Ozempic, but has an additional gut hormone to help cut appetite.

RAYFIEL: Now I'll sit down with a big sandwich and I'll eat half of it and say, I'm done. I'm full. I'm completely full. It certainly gets me satiated much more quickly.

AUBREY: Dr. Louis Aronne of Weill Cornell Medicine is one of the investigators and co-author of the published study results.

LOUIS ARONNE: What we found was that tirzepatide produced weight loss of up to 22.5%. That's a result that is as good as most types of bariatric surgery.

AUBREY: Aronne says obesity drugs have come a long way. And as a doctor who has consulted with drug companies to evaluate them, he says the newer class of medications can do more than help people lose weight.

ARONNE: I think we're in the middle of a revolution in the treatment of cardiometabolic disease.

AUBREY: By treating obesity, the hope is to prevent related conditions. Dr. Pamela Brandt of Inova Health System in Virginia takes an integrative approach to treating obesity and metabolic disease and says the new medicines can be very helpful to those who get access to them.

PAMELA BRANDT: So to be able to give someone a tool and know that it's most likely going to help them, that's really, really cool.

AUBREY: She says obesity is not a cosmetic issue, and the new obesity drugs are not about slimming down to fit into a ball gown or wedding dress, despite headlines about celebrities and influencers using them. Obesity is a disease that puts people's lives at risk.

BRANDT: Obesity is definitely a medical issue. The disease itself is intimately connected, if not what drives all of those other downstream metabolic problems, right? So Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea and the sleep disruptions and the cardiovascular risk that that leads to.

AUBREY: At a time when about 650 million people around the globe have obesity and lifespans are shortened, she says medical tools such as surgery and medicines are needed. For now, the biggest obstacles come down to money and time. The new medications cost thousands of dollars a year per patient and may need to be taken indefinitely for the benefits to hold up.

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian is a cardiologist and a professor at Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition. He says the health care system can't afford these drugs for everyone. He argues for investing in preventive strategies, such as healthier foods and changing the food system.

DARIUSH MOZAFFARIAN: In my experience, patients want to be on these drugs to get the weight off. But very few people want to be on these for life. And it's also very few payers want to pay for these for life.

AUBREY: He says these drugs should be used for people who need them, but should be paired with access to nutritious food and lifestyle support to help create healthier communities.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.