Still life of Wegovy an injectable prescription weight loss drug that has helped people with obesity. It should be used with a weight loss program and physical activity.
Michael Siluk | UCG | Getty Images
Drugmakers are trying to join a two-horse race to lead the market for popular weight-loss drugs that could be worth tens of billions in less than a decade.
Demand is only expected to grow, leaving room in the segment for lesser-known weight-loss drug candidates such as privately held German drugmaker Boehringer Ingelheim and smaller public companies such as Terns Pharmaceuticals, Viking Therapeutics and Therapeutic Structures.
The next entrants to the booming market have a key window of opportunity in the coming years: Goldman Sachs analysts expect 15 million US adults to take obesity drugs by 2030.
During JPMorgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco last week, attendees flocked to listen Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly – the two dominant players in the weight loss drug space – talk about what to expect from blockbuster weight loss drugs this year. Demand for these treatments has skyrocketed and they have fallen into short supply over the past year as they have helped patients lose significant weight over time.
Other large pharmaceutical companies such as e.g Pfizer — which has a widely followed but so far unsuccessful drug weight loss program — Amgen, Roche and AstraZeneca they also described their market integration strategies.
But other companies with weight-loss drug ambitions have garnered less attention during the weight-loss drug industry’s recent gold rush. They may soon be competing with the bigger players.
Here are some of the lesser known businesses looking to enter the market.
Boehringer Ingelheim is developing one weight loss drug with Danish biotechnology Zealand Pharma company. This company has been working on obesity treatments for almost a decade.
Their experimental drug works by targeting two gut hormones: GLP-1 to suppress appetite and glucagon to increase energy expenditure. Some popular weight loss drugs such as Novo Nordisk’s Wegovy target only GLP-1.
Boehringer Ingelheim in August said it was moving the drug, called survodutide, to a final stage study, bringing it one step closer to possible Food and Drug Administration approval. A mid-stage trial found overweight or obese patients lost up to 19% of their weight after 46 weeks of treatment with the drug.
That weight loss could be closer to 20% to 25% in a phase three trial, Zealand Pharma said ahead of the JPMorgan Healthcare conference last week. It is unclear when this product could win approval.
Smaller drugmakers are developing their own weight loss drugs. They could eventually enter the market through acquisition or partnerships with big pharmaceutical companies.
These companies include Terns Pharmaceuticals, which is much earlier in the development process than Boehringer Ingelheim.
The company conducts a early stage testing looking at the oral weight loss drug, which works by targeting GLP-1, in patients who are overweight or obese. Oral drugs will likely be easier for patients to take and companies to manufacture compared to existing weight loss injections.
Terns Pharmaceuticals expects to publish initial 28-day data from that trial in the second half of 2024, the company’s head of research and development, Erin Quirk, said during the conference.
Quirk acknowledged that it may be difficult for Terns to distinguish its pill from other weight-loss drugs. But he added that “even if it’s not the best … analysts are out there predicting that this could be a $100 billion market. If you get a 1% piece of that, that’s a $1 billion drug, right ?”
Other small drugmakers trying to enter the space include Viking Therapeutics, which is developing drugs that target GLP-1 and another hormone called GIP. These are the same hormones targeted by Eli Lilly’s weight loss and diabetes drugs, Zepbound and Mounjaro.
Viking Therapeutics expects to launch mid-stage test data about the weight loss injection in the first half of the year. An early stage study of this drug showed that it caused weight loss of up to 7.8% after 28 days.
The company is also scheduled to release phase one trial data oral version of the weight loss drug in the first quarter of the year.
Structure Therapeutics is similarly developing an obesity pill that missed Wall Street’s weight-loss expectations in a mid-stage trial last month.
The oral drug helped obese patients lose about 5% of their weight compared to placebo patients after eight weeks. Prior to the release of these data, Jefferies analyst Roger Song had said he expected a 6% to 7% weight loss relative to a placebo.
Structure said it expects full 12-week results in obesity patients in the second quarter of this year. The company plans to start a larger mid-stage study in the second half of 2024 and a late-stage trial in 2026.
Altimmune is also developing an experimental obesity injection called pemvidutide, which targets GLP-1 and glucagon. Altimune’s stock has soared nearly 250% since the company went public on Nov. 30 mid-stage test data showing that the drug caused him to lose an average of 15.6% weight after 48 weeks.
Possible players on the line
Some major drugmakers have signaled that they could finally move to enter the weight loss drug market.
This includes a French company Sanofiwhose drug GLP-1 failed a mid-stage trial nearly half a decade ago. In the coming years, the company could look at potential “next-generation” weight loss drugs that could have advantages over existing treatments, such as less side effects, strains he said publishing industry news Endpoint News at the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference.
“There’s a lot of determination in companies, including ours, to say, the first wave will be this, what will the second wave be?” said Sanofi CEO Paul Hudson.
In the meantime, BayerThe head of its pharmaceutical companies, Stefan Oelrich told a interview during the conference that the company is reluctant to enter the obesity market alone, but may partner with other companies.