Kevan Christie: Why latest diet pill isn't actually the '˜holy grail'

For all the talk of a potential '˜holy grail' weight-loss pill '“ that is safe to take and does not increase the risk of serious heart problems '“ coming to the UK, the NHS should think long and hard before making lorcaserin available on prescription.
Buying expensive pills might not be the best way to help the UK population lose weight (Picture: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire)Buying expensive pills might not be the best way to help the UK population lose weight (Picture: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire)
Buying expensive pills might not be the best way to help the UK population lose weight (Picture: Lauren Hurley/PA Wire)

The drug, which is taken twice a day, is an appetite suppressant that works by stimulating brain chemicals to induce a feeling of fullness.

It was developed after scientists at Aberdeen University discovered cells in a part of the brain called the ‘nucleus of the solitary tract’ that process information about food from the gut and control appetite.

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They used techniques that allowed them to turn on these cells artificially with lorcaserin and, by doing this, were able to reduce food intake.

This so-called wonder drug has been on sale in the US since 2013, where a recent study saw 12,000 people, who were either obese or overweight, given the pills or a placebo. Those who took the drug shedd an average of nine pounds in 40 months.

However this seems like a bit of a poor return given it is estimated that the drug would cost between £155 and £225 a month if it is introduced here.

That works out at around £700 to £1,000 spent for every pound lost over close to three-and-a-half years.

By anyone’s standards, that’s a sizeable chunk of change for just over half-a-stone of weight loss, which won’t make that much of a difference if you were say, for argument’s sake – tipping the scales at 23 stone to begin with.

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The NHS has said there is no guarantee lorcaserin will come to the UK given the costs involved.

The health service also stressed that although the drug may seem like an easy option for weight loss, the participants in the study were supposed to take it while also sticking to a diet and exercise plan.

What has caught the eye among medical professionals is that lorcaserin appears to be safe whereas previous weight loss drugs like sibutramine, removed in 2010, were found to increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes in users.

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The ‘quick fix’ aspect of the medication would see it fill the gap between trying to lose weight by eating a healthy diet and exercising, and the more extreme gastric band surgery, but given the small amount of weight lost from taking it, perhaps a more traditional approach will still be required.

And so, enter Weight Watchers.

Bizarrely, the SmartPoints-collecting, calorie-busting collective is now considered the epitome of cool amongst millennials, with cult director Kevin Smith – of Clerks fame – its new poster person after he signed up and lost 51 pounds in just six months after a heart attack.

The weight-loss programme that previously peaked in the 1990s reported an increase of 2.1 million members from the end of 2015, with 4.5 million members now signing up.

Weight Watchers works by assigning every food its own value based on four components – calories, saturated fat, sugar and protein, according to its website. You can join for around £12 a month – so it’s cheaper than taking a pill that effectively cons your brain into thinking you’re full. There’s no doubt room for a drug that helps overweight or obese patients with cardiovascular disease but with those results and at that price, lorcaserin may not be it.

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