Research finds cancer-killing benefits in obesity drug treatment

9 May 2023

Dr Andrew Hogan. Image: Maynooth University

The results suggest a popular treatment for obesity restores the body’s cancer-killing NK cells, independently of the weight-loss function of the drug.

Maynooth researchers claim a popular obesity treatment is able to restore the body’s ability to defend itself from cancer.

The research team looked at Semaglutide, a weekly injection used for both diabetes and obesity management, sold under popular brand names such as Ozempic and Wegovy.

The treatment mimics the glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) hormone, which prompts the body to secrete more insulin and reduce blood sugar levels, which also reduces hunger in individuals.

But the new research claims that this treatment also restores the Natural Killer (NK) cell function for people with obesity, improving their ability to react to cancer.

The NK cell is a type of immune cell that can kill cancer cells and viruses. Previous research has shown that obesity increases the risk of cancer, as these NK cells stop functioning correctly.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) claims Ireland has one of the highest levels of obesity in Europe, with 60pc of adults being overweight or obese.

In the new study published in the research journal Obesity, 20 people with obesity were given the weekly injection for six months. The results suggest the GLP-1 treatment restores the function of NK cells in patients.

The study also claims this effect happens independently of the drug’s weight-loss function, which implies the treatment is directly restoring the NK cells.

The new study was carried out by a team led by Dr Andrew Hogan, who spoke to last year about his research on how obesity disrupts the immune system. PhD researcher Conor de Barra led the work in Hogan’s lab on this project.

Hogan expects the results to be “welcomed by those living with obesity”, but said these GLP-1 treatments are not fully covered by the Irish Government’s Drug Payment Scheme.

“With the findings of this research, it’s more important than ever that the HSE work with the Government to ensure the benefits of this treatment become available to as many individuals as possible and as soon as possible,” Hogan said.

“Given the recent spike in popularity related to the benefits of the GLP-1 treatment with global and high-profile celebrities commenting on its success, global demand has increased and resulted in a worldwide shortage of the drug.

“Again, I hope this is something that is brought under control to ensure as many people as possible living with obesity can start their own treatment of this beneficial drug.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic