A popular obesity drug has been found to restore the function of immune cells that target cancerwhether or not people lost weight with treatment.
A small trial conducted by a team of Irish researchers investigated whether semaglutidea medicine used to treat type 2 diabetesmay also help alleviate cellular metabolism issues in obese people, which may explain their higher rates of cancer and infections.
Weightloss was never anything but an unexpected side effect of the drug, which diabetic patients use to control their blood sugar. It works by mimicking a gut hormone called GLP1, which makes users feel fuller for longer, thereby reducing appetite.
It now appears that semaglutide has another potentially beneficial effect in obese people: restoring the function of immune cells called natural killer cells that lead the charge against cancer and infections.
“We are finally reaching the point where medical treatments for the disease of obesity have been shown to prevent the complications of obesity,” said endocrinologist and co-author Donal O’Shea of University College Dublin.
“The current results represent very positive news for obese people on GLP-1 therapy and suggest that the benefits of this family of treatments may extend to a reduction in cancer risk.”
It’s a long bow to draw from a small 20-person study, but it’s plausible that restoring natural killer cells to their full fighting power could help reduce cancer risk. We just haven’t seen that yet.
Natural killer cells are part of the body’s innate immune system, the first line of defense that kicks in at the first whiff of an intruder. They are known to focus on cancer cells and fight infections.
But obese people have marked dysfunction in their immune systems, which could be related to the fact that they are also susceptible to developing other chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and many types of cancer. They are also likely to have worse outcomes if they catch infections such as the flu and COVID-19.
Given the overlap between diabetes and obesity, O’Shea and his colleagues were interested in seeing whether reusing semaglutide for the latter might help correct some of the immune imbalance seen in obesity.
The study recruited 20 obese people without diabetes who were about to start treatment with semaglutide once a week to manage their weight and examined samples of their circulating immune cells after six months of treatment.
In a series of lab tests, the researchers found that the participants’ natural killer cells were no longer in crisis and had started producing the signaling molecules they normally should, called cytokines. The total number of natural killer cells in the patients’ blood samples did not change from baseline, but their function was restored.
Without a control group, we don’t know how it compares to people without obesity if they were to use semaglutide or to obese people given a placebo. But it’s a good starting point for further research exploring how existing drugs can help treat some of the comorbidities of obesity.
Researchers are particularly interested in understanding how cellular metabolism underlies immune dysfunction in obesity because it appears to regulate natural killer cell activity — and could tie this whole story together.
“Cell metabolism is an essential requirement for natural killer cell functionality, and it may dictate the magnitude of responses,” O’Shea and colleagues write in their published article. “Upon activation, natural killer cells are shaped and instructed by intrinsic metabolic processes and nutrient availability.”
The other interesting thing is that only about half of the study participants lost weight with semaglutide, suggesting that its repair effects on immune cells may be independent of weight loss.
However, weight loss is what Semaglutide is primarily known for. Earlier this year, a resurgence in popularity among celebrities fueled global shortages semaglutide, which is marketed in the United States as Ozempic. Diabetic patients scrambled find their weekly medications to keep their blood sugar from rising to dangerous levels.
“I hope this is something that will be brought under control to ensure that as many people living with obesity as possible can start their own treatment of this beneficial drug,” said Andrew Hogan senior, immunologist at Maynooth University in Ireland.
The study was published in Obesity.