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Timothy Garvey, M.D.
Timothy Garvey, M.D.

For decades, Americans have fought a losing battle with obesity. Between 1960 and 2010, the prevalence of adult obesity in the United States nearly tripled, to 36% from 13%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It isn’t as if many Americans don’t recognize the problem. According to 2018 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, just under half of adults in the United States (49.1%) tried to lose weight in the prior 12 months. Nevertheless, according to CDC data, the obesity rate that year rose to a record 42.4%.

But a new weight-loss drug that announced jaw-dropping clinical trial results in early 2021 may be the ammunition needed to help turn the tide.

Semaglutide, an injectable drug already approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a treatment for Type 2 diabetes, had produced moderate weight loss at its dose of 1 milligram weekly. The new trials at UAB and other medical centers around the country, known as STEP, were studying the potential of a higher dose, 2.4 mg. The results, released in February, were important enough to warrant prominent placement in the New England Journal of Medicine for the STEP 1 trial results and Journal of the American Medical Association for STEP 3 trial results, and a major feature in the New York Times.

Participants lost an average 37 pounds through the combination of semaglutide and behavioral intervention in the STEP 3 trial. “This is a game-changer,” said UAB’s Timothy Garvey, M.D., co-author of the JAMA article and Butterworth Professor of Medicine in the Department of Nutrition Sciences. “We haven’t seen this degree of weight loss with any previous medication. More than 50% of trial participants are losing 15% of their body weight, and anywhere between a third and 40% of participants are losing 20% of their body weight. That is beginning to close the gap with bariatric surgery. I think this truly gives us a very powerful tool to treat obesity as a disease.”

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