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Anti-Obesity Drug Market Trends

Much demand globally, but few new anti-obesity drugs make it to market


Illustration of grwoing waist circumference

Obesity is a growing health issue worldwide.

FDA/Renée Gordon

Even with numerous setbacks, the pharmaceutical industry remains attentive to the anti-obesity drug market because of the global obesity epidemic. The medical community and public continue to expect that pharmaceutical companies will eventually develop a pill or other delivery mechanism that is safer, shows greater results, and has fewer negative side effects than drugs currently on the market.

"There is probably no medical condition for which a safe and effective form of pharmacotherapy is more highly desired than obesity," wrote Washington University endocrinologist David Weigle in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. "Neither is there a condition for which effective treatment would spare so much suffering for so many individuals. There is abundant evidence from epidemiological and interventional studies to suggest that morbidity from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, and certain cancers could all be reduced in proportion to a reduction in body fat content."

Forecaster Lowers Expectations

In late 2009, GlobalData estimated that the $1.1 billion market anti-obesity drugs could nearly triple to reach $3.1 billion by 2016. However, in its latest report released in late 2010, the industry forecaster suggests the market could reach $2 billion by 2017, but only if pharmaceutical companies can deliver new drugs that are safer and more effective. Analysts also lowered the expected annual rate of growth rate, from 11.7 percent to 7 percent.

Global Data makes its predictions based on historical sales revenue, unmet needs, the development pipeline, market competition and other factors.

The Global Obesity Epidemic

By 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese, according to projections from the World Health Organization WHO).

The United States is currently the biggest single market for weight loss drugs, with around 68 percent of the population either overweight or obese, followed by the UK and other European countries. However, China, Russia, India and Brazil could soon begin to eclipse Western countries in terms of its obese populations. For example, China's obesity and overweight levels are predicted to reach 665 to 670 million in 2015.

Yet, there are few options for the growing numbers that would consider pharmaceuticals to help shed pounds and improve health.

Tighter regulations

U.S. and European regulatory agencies have removed numerous anti-obesity drugs from the market over the years in response to reported side effects and have grown very reluctant to approve new drugs.

Between the 1930s and the present, more than a half dozen drugs were widely prescribed to obese patients for a period, then later removed from the market, including dinitrophenol, amphetamine, thyroid hormone, aminorex, fenfluramine and phenylpropanolamine. Adverse effects were primarily cardiovascular and pulmonary.

While sibutramine, the key ingredient in Abbott's Meridia, is still approved for sale in the United States, sibutramine was banned in the UK and France in 2010 after health agencies concluded that its risks outweigh its benefits. Roche's Xenical (orlistat, a lipase inhibitor) lost its U.S. patent in December 2009, further shaking up the weight-loss drug market. In 2009, Xenical and Meridia together represented two-thirds of the $1.4 billion prescription anti-obesity market in terms of revenues. Generics and off-label drugs represent the other third. GlaxoSmithKline's low-dose orlistat, sold over-the-counter under the brand name alli, has annual sales of about $100 million annually.

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