- Tirzepatide, a drug approved to treat diabetes, aids weight loss by reducing appetite.
- A similar drug called semaglutide was approved for obesity and became so popular that it led to shortages.
- However, insurance and long-term patient access are uncertain.
Another weight-loss drug designed to treat diabetes is part of a promising new class of drugs that may help with weight loss.
Tirzepatide has garnered attention for its dramatic weight loss results, including a clinical trial that found patients lost 20% of their body weight in 16 months while using it.
The study results are a game-changing level of weight loss typically without weight loss surgery, Dr. Robert Gabbay, chief scientific and medical officer of the American Diabetes Association, told USA Today.
Despite its potential, there are many unknowns about the drug’s future, including access to patients, according to an expert in obesity medicine.
Here’s how tirzepatide works, how it’s prescribed, and the potential downsides, including side effects, cost, and insurance issues.
It is not yet approved for weight loss, but doctors can prescribe it
One of the most popular weight loss drugs out there, called semaglutide, originated as a diabetes drug and was approved by the FDA to treat obesity in 2021, becoming so popular that it led to a shortage.
A similar story may play out with tirzepatide: Although it has not been approved by the FDA for weight loss, treatment providers anticipate that will change, based on research showing its potential for patients with obesity
“We hope it will be approved for the treatment of obesity,” endocrinologist and obesity medicine specialist Dr. Scott Isaacs told Insider, though it’s unclear to what extent.
In the meantime, patients can still access the drug. The lack of FDA approval for weight loss means manufacturers can’t market the drug for weight loss, Isaacs said. Because tirzepatide is already FDA-approved for use in diabetes, doctors can prescribe it to patients, even for a different purpose, if they think it will help.
It helps reduce appetite, similar to drugs like semaglutide
Tirzapetide works in the same way as other diabetes medications used to treat obesity, according to Isaacs.
“It’s more similar than different to other drugs,” he said.
It acts on a hormone called GLP-1, which controls appetite, so patients taking the drug feel fuller. Tirzapetide also acts uniquely on another hormone related to insulin.
Some research has claimed that tirzepatide is more effective for weight loss than other medications, with one clinical trial showing more pounds shed.
But Isaacs said the evidence is inconclusive because the study was designed to focus on diabetes, not weight loss, and did not use the strongest dose of semaglutide available.
“It’s considered more effective, but how much more, nobody really knows,” he said.
As with similar drugs, tirzepatide can cause side effects such as nausea.
It can be difficult to afford in the long run
One of the biggest questions about tirzepatide right now is whether it will be affordable and accessible to patients who need it over time.
Typically, the high cost of weight loss medications can be a deterrent for patients. Semaglutide, for example, has been listed at $1,349 for a one-month supply for the treatment of obesity.
According to Isaacs, most insurance plans do not cover weight loss medications and those that require extensive documentation.
“It’s a big burden to prove that patients are eligible for the drug,” he said.
Tirzepatide is currently gaining popularity as a weight-loss prescription because of a discount that makes the drug available at $25 for a one- to three-month supply, according to the manufacturer’s website.
The problem with weight loss medications such as tirzepatide and semaglutide is that patients must continue to take the medication to maintain weight loss.
“We want to use the drugs long-term because we know that if they stop taking them, the weight will come back,” Isaacs said.
However, the discount is set to expire next year, so patients taking tirzapetide will have to find another way to pay for the drug.
“There are a lot of unknowns. We do our best, and there is hope that things will change,” Isaacs said. “I’m very forward with the patients, but I’m worried about June next year.”