- 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 shortages developed.
- However, the long-term insurance and access for patients is uncertain.
Another weight loss drug designed to treat diabetes is part of a promising class of new drugs that may aid weight loss.
Tirzepatide has attracted attention for its dramatic weight loss results, including a clinical trial that found patients lost 20% of their body weight in 16 months while taking it.
The study results are a groundbreaking level of weight loss that is normally unheard of 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 patient access, according to an obesity medicine expert.
Here’s how tirzepatide works, how it’s prescribed, and potential downsides, including side effects, cost, and insurance issues.
It’s not yet approved for weight loss, but doctors can prescribe it
One of the most popular existing weight loss drugs, called semaglutide, originated as a diabetes drug and was approved by the FDA in 2021 to treat obesity, becoming so popular that it caused shortages.
A similar story may unfold with tirzepatide: While it’s not FDA-approved for weight loss, practitioners expect this to change, based on research showing its potential for obese patients.
“We expect it to be approved for the treatment of obesity,” endocrinologist and obesity medicine specialist Dr. Scott Isaacs to Insider, although it’s not clear how soon.
In the meantime, patients can still access the drug. The lack of FDA approval for weight loss means manufacturers can’t market the weight loss drug, Isaacs said. Because tirzepatide is already FDA-approved for use in diabetes, doctors can prescribe it to patients, even for another 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 any other drug,” he said.
It acts on a hormone called GLP-1, which regulates appetite so that patients taking the drug feel fuller. Tirzapetide also uniquely acts on another hormone related to insulin.
Some studies have claimed that tirzepatide is more effective for weight loss than other drugs, based on a clinical trial that showed more pounds lost.
But Isaacs said the evidence is inconclusive because the study was designed to focus on diabetes, not weight loss, and didn’t 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 hard to afford it 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 drugs can be a deterrent to patients. Semaglutide, for example, is listed at a price of $1,349 for a monthly supply for the treatment of obesity.
A majority of insurance plans don’t cover weight loss medications, and those that do require a lot of paperwork, according to Isaacs.
“It’s a huge burden to prove that patients are eligible for the drug,” he said.
Currently, tirzepatide is gaining popularity as a weight loss prescription due to a discount that makes the drug available for $25 for a one- to three-month supply, according to the manufacturer’s website.
The catch of weight loss drugs like tirzepatide and semaglutide is that patients need to continue taking the medication to maintain the 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 slated to expire next year, so patients taking tirzapetide will have to find another way to pay for the drug.
“There are many unknowns. We are doing our best and there is hope that things will change,” Isaacs said. “I’m very up front with patients, but I’ll be concerned in June next year.”