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Medications Like Ozempic May Reduce Cancer Risks, Research Indicates

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A category of diabetes and weight loss medications, which includes Novo Nordisk’s Ozempic and Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro, might also provide protection against various cancers, based on recent research released on Friday.

This adds to the growing evidence that these injections offer numerous health advantages. Consequently, there is increasing pressure on insurers and public health providers to cover these popular medications despite ongoing shortages and cost issues.

cancer research

Glucagon-like peptide receptor agonists, commonly known as GLP-1s or GLP-1RAs, were linked to a “significant risk reduction” for ten different cancers when used to treat type 2 diabetes compared to insulin, according to new findings published in JAMA Oncology.

The results stem from an analysis of the electronic health records of 1.7 million U.S. patients over 15 years who were prescribed GLP-1RAs, insulins, or metformin for type 2 diabetes—all of which help control blood sugar—between 2005 and 2018. However, the study did not specify which drugs were reviewed.

GLP-1 drugs, which mimic the action of a gut hormone and help manage blood sugar, include widely used obesity and diabetes treatments like Ozempic and Wegovy (both semaglutide), Mounjaro and Zepbound (tirzepatide), Victoza and Saxenda (liraglutide), and Trulicity (dulaglutide).

Semaglutide was only approved for medical use towards the end of the study period, and tirzepatide was not approved until much later. Nonetheless, the findings for some drugs can provide insights into what might occur with similar drugs.

All 13 cancers studied are considered obesity-related cancers, as excess body fat has been linked to a higher risk of developing them and a worse prognosis for patients who do.

GLP-1RAs were connected to a significantly lower risk of developing esophageal, colorectal, endometrial, gallbladder, kidney, liver, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, as well as meningioma and multiple myeloma, compared to patients taking insulin.

There was no concrete evidence of a reduced risk of developing obesity-related cancers compared to patients taking metformin for their diabetes. However, the researchers noted promising but statistically insignificant indications of a lower risk for gallbladder and colorectal cancer.

While GLP-1RAs were associated with a reduced risk for most obesity-related cancers studied compared to other standard diabetes treatments, the researchers noted that the drugs were also linked to a risk of developing some cancers.

Compared to patients on metformin, those taking GLP-1RAs had a higher risk of kidney cancers, although the risk was lower than for patients taking insulin. No previous reports have connected kidney cancers with GLP-1s, which are known to have direct effects on kidney function and have been linked to lower rates of kidney disease.

Nevertheless, the researchers recommended follow-up for “full evaluation” and continuous monitoring of patients being treated with GLP-1RAs.

There was also no significant reduction in the risk of developing thyroid cancer for patients taking GLP-1RAs compared to insulins, adding to existing research that suggests these drugs might increase the risk of thyroid cancer, supporting warnings on drug packaging advising caution for patients with endocrine or thyroid issues.

What We Don’t Know Yet

The study was observational and thus can only identify relationships, not cause and effect. The reduced risk of obesity-related cancers might result from the weight loss and diabetes control these medications provide—both linked to higher cancer risks—or from some other action of the drug itself or another factor entirely.

Given the data, the researchers noted that the study does not consider “newer and possibly more effective antidiabetic and weight loss agents,” which could show even more pronounced effects, as well as those with multihormone agonist activities that are increasingly available (tirzepatide, for instance, is a multihormone agonist).

Studying Ozempic To Find More Uses

These results contribute to a growing body of research suggesting that the health benefits of popular weight loss and diabetes injections extend beyond controlling the conditions they were initially designed to treat, which are linked to various physical and mental health issues.

This data will be crucial for companies to maintain an edge over competitors racing to introduce their first products to market. It will also strengthen arguments that insurers, employers, and public health authorities should cover these drugs.

Drugmakers are also exploring numerous other conditions, including sleep apnea, addiction, anxiety, Parkinson’s disease, and fatty liver disease.


  • Scott Hall

    Scott was the CMO of PharmaCo from 2013-2015, where compounded drugs for pain and weight loss were the primary products. As a contributor to PharmaLean.com, he shares insights and reviews on weight loss products, aiming to inspire and assist others on their path to healthier living. Follow Scott's 2024 weight loss journey on Facebook.

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