Medicine’s Elusive Goal: A Safe Weight-Loss Drug


Americans spent an estimated $59 billion last year fighting fat — on weight-loss programs, special foods, low-calorie soft drinks, appetite suppressants, gym memberships, diet books, exercise videos, even stomach-clamping surgery.

But less than 1 percent of that sum, as estimated by the research firm Marketdata Enterprises, was spent on prescription drugs. Despite years of research effort — and haunted by diet drugs that proved dangerous, like fen-phen in the 1990s — the pharmaceutical industry has not made meaningful progress in combating obesity, one of the nation’s biggest and costliest health problems.

Now, though, three small California companies hope to succeed where many bigger players have failed. The companies — Arena Pharmaceuticals, Orexigen Therapeutics and Vivus — plan to apply in the coming months for regulatory approval of anti-obesity drugs that could reach the market in late 2010 or in 2011.

With about one-third of American adults gauged to be obese, and another third overweight, a successful drug could garner billions of dollars in sales, even as it potentially reduced the nation’s overall medical bill.

A recent study conducted partly by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that treating obesity and diseases caused by it cost as much as $147 billion in 2006, or 9 percent of all health care spending.

“This is the biggest field, bigger than statins potentially,” said Jack Lief, chief executive of Arena Pharmaceuticals, referring to cholesterol-lowering drugs like Lipitor, which by itself had $12.4 billion in global sales last year.

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