SOLNA, Sweden — Almost half of Americans want to take the diabetes drug Ozempic, for weight loss. Although this drug and others like it are successful at reducing blood sugar and therefore managing diabetes, it also reduces appetite, which has made it a popular choice for weight management. Now, early studies have shown that Ozempic and other similar drugs may also reduce liver damage as well.
To put things to the test, researchers at Karolinska Institutet conducted a register-based study including all people in Sweden with chronic liver disease and Type 2 diabetes. The team compared the risk of severe liver damage in those who were treated with GLP1 agonists, the class of drugs that Ozempic falls in, and those who weren’t. The results showed that those who took the drug for an extended period of time had a decreased risk of developing chronic diseases like liver cancer and cirrhosis later on.
“Fatty liver disease is estimated to affect up to one in five people in Sweden, many of whom have Type 2 diabetes, and about one in twenty develop severe liver disease,” says first author Axel Wester, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the Karolinska Institutet, in a media release. “Our findings are interesting because there are currently no approved drugs to reduce this risk.”
Many participants in this study stopped taking GLP1 agonists, but those who continued taking their medication over a 10-year period were half as likely to suffer from severe liver dysfunction. This research is still quite early, so Wester and his team recognize the need for more research before making the findings generalizable.
“The results need to be confirmed in clinical trials, but it will take many years for these studies to be completed,” says Wester. “Therefore, we use existing registry data to try to say something about the effect of the drugs before that.”
💡Which Drugs Are GLP1 Agonists?
- Dulaglutide (Trulicity)
- Exenatide (Byetta)
- Liraglutide (Victoza)
- Lixisenatide (Adlyxin)
- Semaglutide subcutaneous, tablet (Ozempic, Rybelsus)
- Tirzepatide (Mounjaro)
Given that this study was register-based, another limitation that hinders the quality of the results is that it wasn’t possible to control for factors with no available data. This includes blood tests which could provide insight into the severity of liver disease. To help with this, the researchers have recently built a new database called HERALD which provides access to patient blood samples in Stockholm, Sweden.
“As a next step, we will investigate the effect of GLP1 agonists in this database,” says the study’s last author Hannes Hagström, a consultant in hepatology at the Karolinska University Hospital and adjunct professor at the Karolinska Institutet. “If we get similar results, it would further strengthen the hypothesis that GLP1 agonists can be used to reduce the risk of severe liver disease.”
A Dietitian’s Take
Millions of people around the world deal with diabetes and/or obesity, and rates continue to rise with no slowing down in sight. Drugs like Ozempic have helped immensely to give hope to people who struggle to improve their health without medical assistance. However, seeing how popular the drug has become for weight loss, specifically, even in people without diabetes, is concerning.
Ozempic and other GLP-1 agonists are meant to treat diabetes, and weight loss is just a perk. It is not a substitute for healthy living. It’s important for sustainable habits to be built through diet, movement, sleep hygiene, and more.
Medications can absolutely aid in this process, but I’ve noticed that a lot of people are interested in the drug as a “quick fix.” As far as healthcare, being able to use one class of drugs for different purposes has several advantages. It saves time, money, resources, and helps to deliver faster care to patients. This research about having a protective effect on the liver seems interesting but will have to be validated by more studies. It still feels too early to make conclusive statements about it, as the authors of this study have noted.
The findings are published in the journal Gut.