The Biopharmconsortium Blog has over the years included numerous articles about obesity, and the attempts of researchers and companies to develop treatments for this disease.
Obesity, which has historically been considered the result of “lack of willpower” or other behavioral issues, was recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association in June 2013. This followed many years of genetic, molecular biology, and physiological studies that revealed the pathobiological basis of obesity. Nevertheless, many people—including many doctors, patients, and nutritionists—persist in the believing the older view of obesity. This continues to fuel an extremely lucrative diet industry, even thought most—if not all—attempts at dieting eventually fail.
However, researchers and companies have continued in their efforts to develop approved therapies for obesity. We have followed the results of companies that had come close to obtaining FDA approval for three central nervous system (CNS)-acting antiobesity agents in 2010—only to encounter opposition due to safety concerns. However, two of their agents were approved in 2012. Now the third one was approved in September 2014.
Orexigen/Takeda’s Contrave approved by the FDA
On September 11, 2014, Orexigen Therapeutics (La Jolla, CA) and its partner, Takeda, announced that the FDA had approved their antiobesity agent, Contrave (naltrexone HCI and bupropion HCI) extended-release tablets as an adjunct to diet and exercise for chronic weight management in obese adults [body mass index (BMI) of 30 kg/m2 or greater], and in overweight adults (BMI of 27 kg/m2 or greater) who have at least one weight-related comorbid condition (e.g, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, or hypertension).
However, the FDA requires Contrave’s label to carry a boxed warning of increased risk of suicidal thoughts and other psychiatric issues. The label also warns that “The effect of Contrave on cardiovascular morbidity and mortality has not been established.” Orexigen is also required to conduct several post-marketing studies, including studies in pediatric patients, and assessment of the effects of long-term treatment with Contrave on the incidence of major adverse cardiovascular (CV) events in overweight and obese subjects with CV disease or multiple CV risk factors.
The September 2014 approval of Contrave followed the February 2011 issuance by the FDA of a Complete Response Letter requiring extensive clinical studies before Contrave could be approved. In 2010 the FDA had also rejected the applications of two other preregistration antiobesity drugs—Vivus’ Qnexa and Arena Therapeutics’ lorcaserin (Lorqess). Also in 2010, the then-marketed antiobesity drug sibutramine (Abbott’s Meridia) was withdrawn from the market at the FDA’s request.
Concern about long-term safety was the major consideration in all of these cases.
Nevertheless, lorcaserin (rebranded as Belviq) was approved in June 2012, and Qsymia (formerly known as Qnexa) was approved in July 2012.
Thus there are now three CNS-targeting weight-loss drugs on the U.S. market—all of which are “adjuncts to diet and exercise”, all of which work by suppressing appetite, and all of which have safety concerns that require post-marketing studies. Moreover, at least two of these drugs have levels of efficacy less than might be desired. For example, in one trial of Contrave, significant weight loss — defined as the loss of at least 5% of body weight — was achieved by 42% of Contrave-treated subjects, and 17% of subjects in the placebo group. The FDA says that patients taking Contrave should be evaluated after 12 weeks of treatment. Those who have failed to lose at least 5% of their body weight should discontinue Contrave.
Lorcaserin is the least efficacious of these drugs. Qsymia is the most efficacious, with 66.7% of patients on high-dose Qsymia losing at least 5% of body weight, as compared to 17.3% for placebo. The average weight loss in that trial was 10.9% of body weight with high-dose Qsymia and 1.2% with placebo.
A drop in weight of as little as 5% can have positive effects on risk of obesity’s comorbidities (e.g., insulin resistance, diabetes, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease). Nevertheless, all three of these drugs are aids in management of obesity, rather than effective treatments. Moreover, their potential adverse effects are significant. It must be remembered that it was adverse effects that resulted in the withdrawal from the market of several antiobesity drugs (including sibutramine), and prevented the approval of any obesity drugs at all in 2010.
The FDA’s approval of these three drugs indicates that the agency is more willing to make antiobesity drugs available to patients than it has been previously, even in the face of continuing concerns about long-term safety. Rather than rejecting these drugs, the FDA is handling its concerns about safety via post-marketing studies, and restricted distribution of the drugs.
Liraglutide for treatment of obesity?
Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk is awaiting the FDA’s decision on the approval of its high-dose formulation of liraglutide (Saxenda) for treatment of obesity. An FDA advisory board recommended approval of the agent on September 11, 2014. The drug has an October 20 PDUFA date. The advisory board vote was based on Phase 3 results, which indicated that liraglutide produced an average 8% weight loss in obese subjects, when combined with diet and exercise. 69% of prediabetic obese individuals who were treated with liraglutide also showed no signs of prediabetes after 56 weeks, as compared to 33% for the placebo group.
We have discussed the potential use of liraglutide in treatment of obesity on this blog. A lower-dose formulation of this agent, under the trade name of Victoza, is already approved for treatment of type 2 diabetes. Liraglutide is a recombinant protein drug. It is a member of a class of drugs called incretin mimetics. An incretin is a gastrointestinal hormone that triggers an increase in insulin secretion by the pancreas, and also reduces gastric emptying. The latter effect slows nutrient release into the bloodstream and appears to increase satiety and thus reduce food intake. The major physiological incretin is glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), and incretin-mimetic drugs are peptides with homology to GLP-1 that have a longer half-life in the bloodstream than does GLP-1.
Although liraglutide does not act in the CNS, its major mechanisms of action in treatment of obesity appears to be—like CNS drugs—appetite control. Moreover, clinical trial results indicate that liraglutide is more of an aid in management of obesity than an effective treatment. Nevertheless, liraglutide’s antidiabetic effects and lack of CNS adverse effects constitute potential advantages over CNS-acting antiobesity drugs.
Sales of approved antiobesity drugs have been struggling
Despite the excitement over the approval of antiobesity drugs after so many roadblocks, sales of these drugs have fallen short of estimates. Estimates for Qsymia sales have fallen to $141 million in 2016 from the $1.2 billion projection for 2016 when the drug was approved in 2012. Eisai estimates that Belviq will generate $118 million in sales. Producers and marketers of these two drugs hope that the approval of Contrave will drive patient acceptance of all three CNS-targeting antiobesity drugs. At least one analyst projects that Contrave may achieve $740 million in sales in 2018.
If it is approved, Saxenda may have a sales advantage over the CNS-targeting drugs, since the low-dose formulation, Victoza for type 2 diabetes, is an established drug, with relationships with doctors and insurers already in place. Analysts project that liraglutide (branded as Saxenda) will generate $556 million in weight-loss sales in 2018, in addition to $3.2 billion for the antidiabetic low-dose formulation, Victoza.
A big factor in the level of sales of antiobesity drugs has been insurance reimbursement. It is estimated that some 50 percent of people with private insurance receive at least some coverage for diet drugs. However, insurers tend to classify Qsymia and Belviq as third-tier medications, requiring large patient co-payments. Moreover, Medicare and Medicaid do not pay for the drugs. Analysts hope that the approval of Contrave will result in expanded insurer coverage.
Obesity specialist company Zafgen continues to make progress
The vast majority of efforts to develop antiobesity drugs—over several decades—have been aimed at targeting the CNS. However, obesity is a complex metabolic disease that involves communication between numerous organs and tissues, notably adipose tissue (white, brown, and beige fat), skeletal muscle, the liver, the pancreas, the brain (especially the hypothalamus), the digestive system, and the endocrine system. The pathophysiology of obesity is also related to that of other major metabolic diseases, especially type 2 diabetes.
The mechanistic basis of obesity is not well understood, even though breakthroughs in understanding aspects of this disease have occurred in recent years. Thus there is great need for continuing basic research, and for novel programs aimed at development of breakthrough treatments for obesity based on non-CNS pathways.
One company that has been active in this area is Zafgen (Cambridge, MA), which we have been following on this blog. On June 24, 2014, Zafgen announced the closing of its Initial Public Offering. Zafgen is thus a young company pursuing an alternative approach to antiobesity drug discovery and development that has been able to go public.
In our May 23, 2012 article on this blog, we discussed Zafgen’s lead drug candidate, beloranib (ZGN-433). Beloranib is a methionine aminopeptidase 2 (MetAP2) inhibitor, which exerts an antiobesity effect by downregulating signal transduction pathways in the liver that are involved in the biosynthesis of fat. Animals or humans treated with beloranib oxidize fat to form ketone bodies, which can be used as energy or are excreted from the body. The result is breakdown of fat cells and weight loss. Obese individuals do not usually have the ability to form ketone bodies.
On June 22, 2013, Zafgen announced the interim results of an ongoing double blind placebo-controlled Phase 2 study of beloranib in a group of obese men and women. These results were presented in a poster session at the American Diabetes Association’s 73rd Scientific Sessions in Chicago on June 23, 2013.
Subjects had a mean age of 40.3 years, a mean weight of 101.2 kg (223.1 lbs.), and a mean BMI of 37.9 kg/m2 at the beginning of the study. 38 subjects receiving 12 weeks of treatment in the full trial were randomized to one of three doses of subcutaneous beloranib vs. placebo. The subjects were counseled not to change their usual diet and exercise patterns—this protocol thus differed from trials of the agents discussed earlier in this article. The interim analysis was of results from the first 19 subjects who completed 12 weeks of treatment.
Beloranib appeared safe and showed dose responsive weight loss. After 12 weeks, subjects on 0.6 mg, 1.2 mg, or 2.4 mg of beloranib lost an average of 3.8, 6.1 and 9.9 kg, respectively (8.4, 13.4, and 21.8 lbs.), versus 1.8 kg (4.0 lbs.) for placebo; these results were statistically significant. In addition, beloranib treated subjects showed improvements versus placebo in CV risk factors including levels of triglycerides, LDL cholesterol and C-reactive protein. Sensation of hunger also was reduced significantly.
Subcutaneous beloranib treatment over 12 weeks was generally well-tolerated. There were no major adverse events or deaths.
If later clinical trials confirm these interim Phase 2 clinical results, beloranib may have significant advantages over the three approved CNS-targeting drugs and over Saxenda, because of beloranib’s apparent benign adverse-effect profile, and major effects on weight and fat loss, even in the absence of diet and exercise advice. However, beloranib is years away from reaching the market for treatment of severe obesity with no known genetic causation.
Zafgen is attempting to develop beloranib not only as a superior alternative to “diet drugs”, but also as an alternative to bariatric surgery. In order to obtain approval for that indication, beloranib must (in late-stage, long-term clinical trials) demonstrate both the degree of weight loss and the positive metabolic effects seen in severely obese patients treated via bariatric surgery.
In addition to developing beloranib for severe obesity, Zafgen is developing this drug for treatment of the rare genetic disease Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS). Patients with PWS exhibit such symptoms as low muscle mass, short stature, incomplete sexual development, cognitive disabilities, and a chronic feeling of hunger that can result in life-threatening obesity. PWS is the most common genetic cause of life-threatening obesity. Many children with PWS become morbidly obese before age 5.
In January 2013, the FDA granted Zafgen orphan designation to treat PWS with beloranib. On July 10, 2014, the European Commission also granted orphan drug designation for beloranib for this indication. These regulatory actions were based on the initial results of Zafgen’s Phase 2a clinical trial of beloranib in PWS. This trial showed improvements in hunger-related behaviors and body composition, including reductions in body fat and preservation of lean body mass.
On October 1, 2014, Zafgen announced that it had begun a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled Phase 3 clinical trial of beloranib in obese adolescents and adults with PWS (clinical trial number NCT02179151). The company is also testing beloranib in Phase 2 trials in obesity due to hypothalamic injury, and is in preclinical studies with a second-generation MetAP2 inhibitor for treatment of general obesity.
The Biopharmconsortium Blog has also been following an earlier-stage company, Energesis Pharmaceuticals (Cambridge, MA), whose approach to developing antiobesity therapeutics is based on targeting brown fat. On June 19, 2014, FierceBiotech and Energesis announced that Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson Innovation had entered into a collaboration with Energesis, aimed at identifying agents that stimulate the formation of new brown fat in order to treat metabolic diseases.
The antiobesity drug field, which in 2010 was the domain of a “pall of gloom”, is now populated by three approved CNS-targeting drugs, perhaps to be soon joined by Saxenda. These drugs promise to give patients and physicians a new set of tools to aid in the management of obesity. However, the history of the CNS-targeting obesity drug field is littered with tales of the withdrawal of drug after drug due to unacceptable adverse effects. Moreover, the market—and especially payers—have not yet fully accepted the new antiobesity agents.
As readers of this blog well know, we favor approaches to treatment of obesity and its comorbidities based on targeting somatic physiological pathways that appear to be at the heart of the causation of obesity, not just the CNS. The progress of Zafgen in addressing a set of these pathways is very encouraging. However, these results must be confirmed by Phase 3 clinical trials.
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