Research has found that weight-loss vaccines, such as Ozempic and Wegovy, could also address life-threatening kidney diseases and prevent thousands of patients from requiring dialysis or a transplant.
The drug, also known as semaglutide, was originally designed to treat diabetes, but has also proven very effective in combating obesity, with patients taking the highest doses losing a fifth of their weight.
The Mail on Sunday can now reveal that people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) could become the last patients to be offered treatment on the NHS, as the health service tries to combat the growing problem.
CKD occurs when the two organs (which remove waste products from the blood and make urine) no longer work as well as they should. It usually worsens over time and the damage cannot be reversed.
The disease affects 7.2 million Britons, but this number is expected to increase by around 400,000 over the next decade, mainly due to the increasing number of cases of high blood pressure and obesity, one of the main triggers of CKD. The number of CKD patients needing life-saving dialysis treatment, when connected to a machine that cleans their blood several times a week, is expected to quadruple in that time, which could cost the taxpayer £5 billion a year.
People with chronic kidney disease could become the last patients to be offered semaglutide injections on the NHS, as the health service tries to combat the growing problem.
But researchers say offering them early treatment with semaglutide would be a revolutionary solution that could prevent the health service from being overwhelmed.
“This drug could completely change the way we treat kidney disease,” says Professor Katherine Tuttle, a kidney researcher at the University of Washington who is leading a major trial of semaglutide.
“We could save many lives and prevent thousands of people from needing dialysis or the anxiety of needing a new organ.”
And he adds: “We are in a revolutionary moment for kidney disease; this could become one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine.”
While people with high blood pressure and diabetes are at increased risk of developing CKD, the condition also significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes, which are the most common causes of death in patients with advanced CKD.
Semaglutide is part of a class of medications known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, the first of which was developed nearly two decades ago for type 2 diabetes. These medications mimic the hormone GLP-1. 1 in the intestine that helps with the release of insulin, another hormone that regulates blood sugar. Scientists also found that they suppressed appetite, leading to weight loss.
Last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak praised the drug and announced a pilot scheme that would allow GPs to offer the weekly jab to obese patients, but its growing popularity as a weight-loss treatment has created a global shortage that has made that diabetics have difficulty obtaining vitality. supplies.
However, weight loss was not the only unwanted side effect of GLP-1 medications discovered by researchers.
A 2018 US study found that kidney disease patients taking a different GLP-1 drug experienced a significant reduction in a protein called albumin in their urine; A high amount may be a sign that the kidneys are not working properly.
“These are surprising findings,” says Professor Tuttle. “Patients had declining kidney function at the beginning of the trial, but their condition stabilized once they started taking a GLP-1 drug.”
A separate study, published last year, found that type 2 diabetics who also had kidney disease saw their condition stabilize after taking semaglutide. And late last year, Novo Nordisk, the maker of semaglutide, ended a trial of the weekly shot early after data appeared to show the drug was effective in curbing kidney disease.
Significantly, Professor Tuttle says the drug appears to be most effective in patients with severe kidney damage. “This could help those patients who are about to need a transplant,” he adds.
This would be good news for the 5,000 UK patients waiting for a kidney transplant; NHS figures suggest many are waiting up to three years.
It is still unclear why semaglutide has such a pronounced effect on kidney disease.
“It is possible that GLP-1 drugs have an anti-inflammatory effect,” says Professor Tuttle. “Kidney disease is often defined by scarring within the organ, but early studies suggest that GLP-1 agonists may protect patients from this damage.
“We hope that if patients receive treatment long enough, they can begin to improve.”
Crucially, some data suggest that semaglutide may even heal these kidney scars, opening the door to a cure.
If approved as a treatment for CKD, experts say it would likely be given alongside other kidney medications. The NHS has already approved the launch of twice-daily tablets, empagliflozin and dapagliflozin, which have been shown to reduce the risk of CKD progression and death by almost a third.
“We believe that combining semaglutide with these pills could further reduce the risk of progression,” says Professor Tuttle.
Kidney charities say it is crucial the Government finds a solution to the UK’s semaglutide shortage. Demand for the drug, fueled by endorsements from celebrities such as Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey who used it to lose weight, has led to a global deficit. Last month’s Mail on Sunday revealed that the NHS expects this to last until 2025 due to high demand among dieters.
Health officials have repeatedly urged private weight-loss doctors not to prescribe the drug for any use other than diabetes care.
Save the beating for sick people like me.
One kidney disease patient already taking semaglutide is Dawn Cerruto, 52, who has lived with the condition for 26 years.
The New Jersey social worker underwent dialysis for three years after her diagnosis before receiving a transplant.
While his kidney disease has remained relatively stable since then, he later developed diabetes, which is why he started taking semaglutide last year.
“At first I had some stomach pains and I actually lost a lot of weight,” says Dawn. “However, I am now taking a smaller dose and my diabetes is stable.”
Dawn Cerruto, 52, a social worker from New Jersey, has lived with the disease for 26 years.
Dawn recently discovered that the shot, which she gives herself once a week, could also prevent her kidney disease from getting worse.
‘When I read that I thought: I guess I’m taking the right medicine.
“My doctors told me that the new kidney I have will probably last another ten years, but I hope that taking semaglutide will help prolong that time even longer.”
However, Dawn, who is also an ambassador for the American Kidney Fund charity, says she is concerned about the current global shortage of semaglutide.
“It’s such good news that it could help prevent kidney disease from getting worse, but a lot of people take it because they just want to lose some weight,” he explains.
“There are patients like me who really need this medication, so it should only be considered as a last resort for patients who are otherwise healthy.”