[Pharmacological therapy of obesity]

Uberto Pagotto, Diego Vanuzzo, Valentina Vicennati, Renato Pasquali
Giornale Italiano di Cardiologia 2008, 9 (4 Suppl 1): 83S-93S
Obesity is reaching epidemic proportions worldwide and it is correlated with various comorbidities, among which the most relevant are diabetes mellitus, arterial hypertension, and cardiovascular diseases. Obesity management is a modern challenge because of the rapid evolution of unfavorable lifestyles and unfortunately there are no effective treatments applicable to the large majority of obese/overweight people. The current medical attitude is to treat the complications of obesity (e.g. dyslipidemia, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases). However, the potential of treating obesity is enormous, bearing in mind that a volitional weight loss of 10 kg is associated with important risk factor improvement: blood pressure -10 mmHg, total cholesterol -10%, LDL cholesterol -15%, triglycerides -30%, fasting glucose -50%, HDL cholesterol +8%. Drug treatment for obesity is an evolving branch of pharmacology, burdened by severe side effects and consequences of the early drugs, withdrawn from the market, and challenged by the lack of long-term data on the effect of medications on obesity-related morbidity and mortality, first of all cardiovascular diseases. In Europe three antiobesity drugs are currently licensed: sibutramine, orlistat, and rimonabant; important trials with clinical endpoints are ongoing for sibutramine and rimonabant. While waiting for their results, it is convenient to evaluate these drugs for their effects on body weight and cardiometabolic risk factors. Sibutramine is a centrally acting serotonin/noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor that mainly increases satiety. At the level of brown adipose tissue, sibutramine can also facilitate energy expenditure by increasing thermogenesis. The long-term studies (five) documented a mean differential weight reduction of 4.45 kg for sibutramine vs placebo. Considering the principal studies, attrition rate was 43%. This drug not only reduces body weight and waist circumference, but it decreases triglycerides and uric acid as well and it increases HDL cholesterol; in diabetics it improves glycated hemoglobin. Sibutramine has conflicting effects on blood pressure: in some studies there was a minimal decrease, in some others a modest increase. In all the studies this drug increased pulse rate. Sibutramine is not recommended in patients with uncontrolled hypertension, or in case of history of cardio- and cerebrovascular disease. Orlistat is a pancreatic lipase inhibitor that reduces fat absorption by partially blocking the hydrolysis of dietary triglycerides. A recent meta-analysis evaluated 22 studies lasting for at least 12 months, in obese patients with a mean body mass index of 36.7 kg/m2, where orlistat was associated with hypocaloric diet or behavioral interventions: the net average weight loss was 2.89 kg (confidence interval 2.27-3.51 kg). Considering the principal studies, attrition rate ranged from 33 to 57%. Orlistat significantly decreases waist circumference, blood pressure, total and LDL cholesterol, but has no effect on HDL and triglycerides. This drug significantly reduced the incidence of diabetes only in subjects with impaired glucose tolerance. The major adverse effects with orlistat are mainly gastrointestinal (fatty and oily stool, fecal urgency, oily spotting, fecal incontinence) and attenuate over time. Orlistat should be avoided in patients with chronic malabsorption and cholestasis. Rimonabant is a selective antagonist of cannabinoid type 1 receptor. This drug, by inhibiting the overactivation of the endocannabinoid system, produces anorectic stimuli at the central nervous level, but also has effects on the peripheral systems involved in metabolism control, such as liver, adipose tissue, skeletal muscles, endocrine pancreas, and gastrointestinal apparatus, influencing many processes partially unknown. An ample experimental program named RIO (Rimonabant In Obesity) involved about 6600 obese or overweight patients to identify the effects of rimonabant in weight loss and associated cardiometabolic abnormalities, over and beyond a caloric restriction of 600 kcal in the treatment and placebo arms. In the four double-blind RIO trials published (Rio-North America, RIO-Europe, RIO-Lipids, RIO-Diabetes), rimonabant 20 mg significantly (p <0.001) reduced weight by 6.3-6.9 kg in the non-diabetic groups vs placebo (-1.5-1.8 kg), whereas in the diabetic subjects enrolled in RIO-Diabetes, weight loss was 5.3 vs 1.4 kg in the placebo group. Attrition rate at 1 year ranged between 40 and 50%, similar to the studies with sibutramine or orlistat. Similarly to weight loss, also waist circumference was significantly reduced by rimonabant. As for cardiometabolic parameters, rimonabant induced a significant increase in HDL cholesterol and a significant decrease in triglycerides. Even if no significant LDL reduction was achieved, the RIO-Lipids study showed a significant decrease in small dense LDL particles, more atherogenic, in rimonabant-treated subjects. Non-diabetic treated patients improved basal insulin and indirect indexes of insulin resistance, while in the RIO-Diabetes study, the only one including diabetics, glycated hemoglobin improved by 0.7% in the active treatment arm vs placebo. The effects on HDL cholesterol and glycated hemoglobin seem in a large percentage unrelated to weight loss. These effects have been confirmed by another trial, named SERENADE, evaluating the treatment in naive diabetic patients. Rimonabant is not recommended in patients with a history of depressive disorders or suicidal ideation and with uncontrolled psychiatric illness, and is contraindicated in patients with ongoing major depression or ongoing antidepressive treatment. In conclusion, despite an enormous advancement in basic research to understand the pathogenetic mechanisms at the base of obesity, the pharmacological research did not reach the therapeutic opportunities available for other chronic conditions, like hypertension and dyslipidemia. However, the few molecules available for clinical practice (sibutramine, orlistat, rimonabant) have shown, when properly used, to contribute to reduce body weight and undoubtedly improve cardiometabolic risk factors. With this preamble, according to current guidelines and pharmacoeconomic studies, patients who might benefit from antiobesity treatment are those with a body mass index > or =30 or 27-29.9 kg/m2 with major obesity-related comorbidities such as hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia, obstructive sleep apnea, and metabolic syndrome.

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