Drugmakers are racing to develop weight loss pills

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Good afternoon! Several drugmakers are hurrying to capitalize on one of the next major innovations coming to the booming weight loss drug market: effective, convenient and potentially affordable obesity pills. 

Most of the weight loss and diabetes drugs available now are weekly injections, such as Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy and Ozempic and Eli Lilly’s Zepbound and Mounjaro. They are among medications called GLP-1 agonists, which have skyrocketed in popularity over the last year. 

Now the pair and other drugmakers such as Pfizer are hoping to develop oral weight loss and diabetes drugs that are more convenient for patients to take and easier to manufacture at scale. That may help alleviate the supply shortages plaguing the existing injectable treatments in the U.S.

Pills are also typically cheaper than injections, but it’s unclear if that will be the case with oral obesity drugs. 

Novo Nordisk has a low-dose oral version of semaglutide, the active ingredient in Wegovy and Ozempic, that costs $968.52 per month before insurance and other rebates. That pill, marketed as Rybelsus, is approved for diabetes treatment. The current injections all have list prices of around $1,000 per month. 

Pfizer on Thursday signaled that it is still in the running to develop an obesity pill after a string of setbacks last year. The company said it will advance a once-daily version of its oral weight loss drug, danuglipron, into more studies to identify an ideal dosage. 

Pfizer disappointed investors last year after it scrapped a twice-daily version of danuglipron and another oral obesity drug called lotiglipron. 

But Pfizer’s once-daily danuglipron is still in early-stage development. It’s also unclear if the company will commit to conducting late-stage studies on danuglipron, which it needs to do before it can file for regulatory approvals. 

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Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk are further ahead in the race. 

Eli Lilly is developing an oral GLP-1 called orforglipron, which helped patients lose up to 14.7% of their weight after 36 weeks in a mid-stage trial, compared to 2.3% among those who took a placebo. Eli Lilly has previously said that it expects late-stage trial results on orforglipron in 2025. 

Meanwhile, Novo Nordisk last year released phase three trial results on its high-dose version of oral semaglutide, which is intended for weight management. The pill helped patients lose around 15% of their body weight on average after 68 weeks.

The company at the time said it plans to file for Food and Drug Administration approval in 2023. Novo Nordisk has not indicated whether it has. 

Novo Nordisk in March also touted data on another experimental weight loss pill called amycretin, which helped people lose 13.1% of their weight after 12 weeks in an early-stage trial. Results from a mid-stage trial are not expected until 2026. 

Amycretin suppresses appetite by targeting the same gut hormone that Wegovy mimics, which is known as GLP-1. But amycretin also targets a pancreas hormone called amylin, which affects hunger.

Here are some of the other drugmakers developing oral drugs for obesity, diabetes or both: 

Feel free to send any tips, suggestions, story ideas and data to Annika at [email protected].

Latest in health-care technology

Digital health funding shows ‘measured momentum’ this year, report says

Things are looking up for the digital health sector – at least a little bit.

Digital health startups in the U.S. raised $5.7 billion across 266 deals in the first half of 2024, a report from Rock Health on Monday found. If that pace continues, deal counts and funding dollars could surpass totals from 2019 and 2023. Digital health startups raised $8.2 billion across 420 deals in 2019, and $10.7 billion across 498 deals last year, the report said. 

The “pandemic-fueled funding cycle” from 2020 to 2022 remains hard to compete with, according to Rock Health. Investors were flocking to health-care companies during a booming market, and funding peaked at $29.2 billion in 2021.

Rock Health said that Series A activity was especially strong in the first half of this year, though Seed rounds and Series B checks were also popular. Seed, Series A and Series B funding made up nearly 85% of all labeled raises for the period, the report said. 

The firm calls rounds without a public title (like Series A, for instance) “unlabeled rounds.” Startups will often raise unlabeled rounds to avoid taking valuation haircuts and push through challenging markets, though they often don’t stave off tough conversations forever. 

Rock Health said the overall percentage of unlabeled digital health deals peaked at 55% in the fourth quarter of 2023, and it decreased to 47% and 33% in the first and second quarters of 2024, respectively.  

“This waning could mark the beginning of our return to a ‘more normal’ cadence of labeled raises,” the report said.

Many Healthy Returns readers can probably guess what’s coming next: artificial intelligence drew investors to many early-stage digital health companies in the first half of this year. Nearly 40% of all the digital health companies that raised Series A rounds use AI, and 34% of the sector’s total funding went to companies that deploy the tech in some capacity. 

The ground may also be thawing in the digital health IPO market, which went almost two full years without seeing any public debuts. The health-care payment software vendor Waystar and the precision medicine company Tempus AI went public in June, while the pregnancy monitoring company Nuvo went public via SPAC in May.

Rock Health said this exit activity mirrors the slight uptick in IPOs across broader markets. 

To sum it all up, “early-stage checks are growing, the proportion of unlabeled deals is tapering, and the digital health IPO market is showing early signs of life,” the report said. 

We’ll have to see what the rest of the year has in store.

Feel free to send any tips, suggestions, story ideas and data to Ashley at [email protected].