Taking a weight-loss drug reduced a craving for opioids

Early results provide some evidence that drugs like Wegovy can tackle opioid addiction, too

Shown are two blue injectable pens of a drug called Saxenda, the brand name for a molecule called liraglutide that is used to treat diabetes and obesity.

Preliminary results from a small clinical trial suggest that liraglutide, a drug used to treat diabetes and obesity, could also be an effective treatment for substance use disorders. Saxenda (shown) is one of the brand names under which liraglutide is sold.

CristianCamiloAcevedoOrozco/Wikimedia Commons

DENVER — A weight-loss drug used to treat obesity and diabetes has shown promise to treat another disorder: opioid addiction.

Early results from a small clinical trial, presented February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggest that a close relative of the weight-loss drugs Wegovy and Ozempic significantly lessened cravings for opioids in people with opioid use disorder.

“For them to have any time when they might be free of that craving seems to be very hopeful,” Patricia “Sue” Grigson, a behavioral neuroscientist at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey said at the conference. The vast majority of drug overdose deaths in the United States are due to opioids (SN: 2/14/24).

The drug, called liraglutide, mimics a hormone called GLP-1 that the body releases after people eat. Wegovy and Ozempic — brand names for semaglutide, a molecule that induces weight loss more effectively than liraglutide — also imitate the hormone.

It’s unclear exactly how the drugs work when it comes to weight loss, but researchers think such GLP-1 dupes prompt the body and brain to make people feel full (SN: 12/13/23).

There are hints that such drugs could work for addiction, too. People taking Wegovy or Ozempic have reported lessened desire for not just food but also alcohol and nicotine. What’s more, Grigson and colleagues showed in a previous study in rats that liraglutide can cut down on heroin-seeking behavior, perhaps by changing the animals’ brain activity (SN: 8/30/23).

To test whether liraglutide might work in people as a treatment for opioid addiction, Grigson and colleagues gave the drug to volunteers being treated for opioid use disorder at the Caron Treatment Center in Wernersville, Pa. The team analyzed data from 20 people, 10 of whom were slated to receive increasing drug doses over 19 days. The remaining 10 people received a placebo.

At higher doses of liraglutide, patients dropped out of the trial largely due to gastrointestinal symptoms including nausea, a known side effect of these drugs. Still, the treatment began reducing opioid cravings at the lowest dose, Grigson said, and desire for opioids was reduced by 30 percent overall.

That’s equivalent to the effect of about 14 days of intensive treatment at a residential center, Grigson said.

The results need to be confirmed in larger trials, she said. The team also hopes to try out other GLP-1 drugs, which may be more effective and come with fewer side effects, and include people with different levels of addiction.

Erin I. Garcia de Jesus is a staff writer at Foogue. She holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington and a master’s in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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