A Booming Anti-Obesity Drug Discovery Landscape at a Glance (With Challenges)

by Andrii Buvailo, PhD          Biopharma insight

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In 1986, Danish scientist Jens Juul Holst discovered that the gut hormone GLP-1 stimulates insulin and suppresses appetite. This research led to the development of two blockbuster weight-loss drugs: Wegovy by Novo Nordisk and Zepbound by Eli Lilly, now prescribed to millions as obesity affects 1 in 8 people globally.

Since Wegovy's 2021 launch and Zepbound's approval five months ago, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are leading the next generation of weight-loss drugs, targeting a market projected to reach $150bn by 2030. Currently, 232 anti-obesity drugs are in development, with the most advanced utilizing GLP-1 combined with other hormones.

Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, who initially received approval for GLP-1 treatments for diabetes in 2005 and 2010, respectively, are now advancing five new weight-loss drugs in phase 3 trials. Novo Nordisk's CagriSema, targeting over 20% weight loss, and Eli Lilly's retatrutide, showing a 24% weight reduction in early trials, are notable candidates.

Novo Nordisk is also developing amycretin, a promising pill combining GLP-1 and amylin. Analysts like Emily Field from Barclays note these companies continually set higher standards.

The Weight-Loss Drug Market Getting Crowded

The race to dominate the lucrative weight loss drug market is heating up as demand for these treatments continues to surge. Currently, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly are the clear frontrunners, capturing the lion's share of attention and sales. Their blockbuster drugs have generated immense demand, even leading to occasional shortages. But the market, projected to be worth tens of billions of dollars within a decade, has room for more players.

Emerging Competitors

While Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly hold dominant positions, several lesser-known companies are making significant strides to enter the market. These emerging competitors see a unique window of opportunity to carve out their niche in this booming sector.

Boehringer Ingelheim is developing a promising weight loss drug in collaboration with Zealand Pharma. Their experimental treatment, named survodutide, targets two gut hormones—GLP-1 to suppress appetite and glucagon to increase energy expenditure. Mid-stage trials have shown that patients lost up to 19% of their body weight after 46 weeks, with potential for even greater results in late-stage trials.

Terns Pharmaceuticals is in the early stages of developing an oral weight loss drug that targets GLP-1. Initial 28-day trial data is expected in the second half of 2024. Although Terns is in the nascent phase compared to Boehringer Ingelheim, the company is optimistic about its potential to capture even a small percentage of the estimated $100 billion market.

Viking Therapeutics is another contender, focusing on drugs that target both GLP-1 and GIP hormones, similar to Eli Lilly's treatments. Viking plans to release mid-stage trial data on its weight loss injection soon, with an early-stage study showing up to 7.8% weight loss after 28 days. Additionally, the company is developing an oral version of this drug, with phase one trial data expected shortly.

is working on an obesity pill. Although their mid-stage trial results fell short of Wall Street’s expectations, showing a 5% weight loss compared to placebo over eight weeks, the company is continuing its efforts. Full 12-week results are expected in the second quarter of this year, followed by a larger mid-stage study and a late-stage trial.

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