Ozempic may help fight kidney disease, study finds

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As chronic kidney disease rises nationwide, a new study partially conducted in Orlando suggests weight loss drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy could be part of the solution.

The pharmaceutical-industry-backed study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, followed more than 3,500 people with type 2 diabetes and kidney disease for an average of 3.4 years, including several in Orlando. One group was given weekly injections of semaglutide, the main ingredient in Ozempic and Wegovy, and another was given placebo injections.

The double-blind clinical trial found that kidney disease progressed more slowly in those taking semaglutide compared with those taking a placebo. They were less likely to need dialysis or a transplant.

The group taking semaglutide also had an 18% lower risk of major cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes and a 20% lower risk of death.

“This is a groundbreaking trial because it addresses this very high-risk group and provides this benefit across the spectrum of risk — kidneys, hearts and lives,” said Dr. Richard E. Pratley, a study co-author and senior investigator at the AdventHealth Translational Research Institute in Orlando.

It’s easy to forget that Ozempic wasn’t originally intended to help celebrities shed pounds for the red carpet, a diet craze that has fueled a global shortage.

Drugs with semaglutide work by mimicking a naturally occurring hormone that causes the pancreas to release insulin and makes people feel full.

The drugs are FDA-approved to help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood sugar, to help obese people lose weight, and to reduce the risk of cardiovascular death, heart attack and stroke in obese or overweight adults with cardiovascular disease.

Pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, creator of Ozempic and Wegovy, funded the study and has already shared plans to use the trial’s results to apply with the Food and Drug Administration to expand the drug’s uses.

It’s likely that after this study, at least one of Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide drugs will get FDA approval for treating kidney disease too, Pratley said.

Kidney disease has become more common in recent years as rates of diabetes and high blood pressure rise. Florida alone has seen a 28.3% increase in people living with kidney failure since 2009, according to the American Kidney Fund, with over 50,000 in 2022.

About 35 million Americans have kidney disease, and 800,000 live with kidney failure.

Once this drug is approved to help, the next hurdle will be convincing doctors to prescribe it. Medical professionals can be suspicious of changes to the status quo and are sometimes reluctant even to administer already-established therapies for kidney disease, Pratley said.

Several studies have found that cost also deters some people from taking medication to manage their chronic kidney disease.

“There are a whole lot of people out there with kidney disease, and not so many people who are actually on these potentially kidney-saving therapies,” Pratley said.

That being said, questions still remain. For instance, why does Ozempic slow kidney decline?

“The short answer is: we don’t know, but there’s a lot of theories,” Pratley said.

Diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease are often interconnected, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a drug that targets one helps them all.

The kidney has receptors for the molecule Ozempic is derived from, which could play a role, he added. Ozempic and drugs like it also decrease inflammation, which is linked to both kidney and heart issues.

“It could be a combination of small contributions of all of these different factors,” Pratley said.

Future studies may examine whether the drug can protect people who have kidney disease but don’t have diabetes. They may also attempt to reach more diverse populations: Most of the study’s participants were white, but kidney disease disproportionately impacts minorities.


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