FDA clears first obesity drug in 10 years

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved the first anti-obesity drug in more than a decade in a move that signals the war against fat is becoming increasingly pharmaceutical.

The drug is one of three that the FDA has been considering. Arena Pharmaceuticals produces the drug and it will be sold under the name Belviq. The company’s shares jumped nearly 30 per cent on Wednesday after the approval was announced.

Regulators have become increasingly concerned about obesity and the costs that related diseases such as diabetes are imposing on the healthcare system.

“Obesity threatens the overall wellbeing of patients and is a major public health concern,” said Dr Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “The approval of this drug, used responsibly in combination with a healthy diet and lifestyle, provides a treatment option for Americans who are obese or are overweight and have at least one weight-related comorbid condition.”

Belviq was approved for adults who are obese, defined as having a body mass index greater than 29, or overweight but afflicted by high blood pressure, high cholesterol or type 2 diabetes. The drug works by tricking the brain into thinking that the body is full after a smaller amount of food.

Jack Lief, chief executive of Arena, said that the drug would be important to people who continue to battle obesity in spite of efforts to lose weight through diet and exercise.

The FDA is still considering similar diet drugs manufactured by Vivus and Orexigen Therapeutics. Their shares rose 7.4 per cent and 20.3 per cent, respectively, on Wednesday.

Analysts at Barclays said that the approval of Belviq could drag on the shares of Weight Watchers on the assumption that people will switch from natural weight-loss remedies in favour of taking pills. Shares of Weight Watchers slipped 2 per cent to $49.54.

Drug companies have been wary of developing diet pills since the 1990s following heart valve problems linked to “fen-phen” diet pills created by Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company. Healthcare analysts estimate that Wyeth’s litigation bill related to fen-phen topped $13bn.

The FDA said that Belviq did not appear to impact heart tissue in the same way that the Wyeth drug did. The agency added that Arena will conduct six studies after the drug goes on the market to assess its long-term impact on the heart.

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