Amgen wants in on the booming weight loss drug market — and it’s taking a different approach

The Amgen logo is displayed outside Amgen headquarters on May 17, 2023 in Thousand Oaks, California.

Mario Tama | Getty Images

Amgen is taking a new approach as it tries to stand out in a crowded field of drugmakers racing to develop the next blockbuster weight loss drug.

The biotech company is testing an injectable treatment that helps people lose weight differently from the existing injections from Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly, and other obesity medicines in development. Amgen’s treatment, called MariTide, also appears to help patients keep weight off after they stop taking it.  

The drugmaker is also testing its drug to be taken once a month or even less frequently, which could offer more convenience than the weekly medicines on the market. 

It’s too early to say how competitive Amgen will be in the budding weight loss drug space, which Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly have so far dominated.

Some analysts expect the market could be worth $100 billion by the end of the decade, potentially leaving room for new competitors to enter. Goldman Sachs also projects that between 10 million and 70 million Americans will be taking weight loss drugs by 2028.

The available data on Amgen’s injectable drug is promising, but it’s from a small, early-stage clinical trial. The Thousand Oaks, California-based company also is developing an oral medicine and other treatments for obesity, but has disclosed few details about them. 

Investors and health experts will likely get a better idea of Amgen’s prospects later this year: The drugmaker expects to release initial data from an ongoing mid-stage trial on MariTide, along with phase one data on its obesity pill. 

It’s also unclear whether Amgen’s treatments will be cheaper than the existing weight loss drugs, which cost around $1,000 per month.

Wegovy from Novo Nordisk and Zepbound from Eli Lilly lead a new class of obesity treatments that has drawn unrelenting patient demand — and investor interest — despite their hefty price tags and limited insurance coverage. 

Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk have also struggled to offer enough supply of their treatments, which could give other companies a chance to win market share.  

How Amgen’s treatment is different

Amgen’s drug offers a new twist on weight loss. 

Much like Wegovy and Zepbound, one part of Amgen’s treatment activates a gut hormone receptor called GLP-1 to help regulate a person’s appetite. 

But while Zepbound activates a second hormone receptor called GIP, Amgen’s drug blocks it. Wegovy does not target GIP, which suppresses appetite like GLP-1 but may also improve how the body breaks down sugar and fat.

Amgen’s decision to tamp down rather than boost GIP activity is based on genetics research suggesting that blocking the receptor is linked to lower fat mass and body weight, company executives have said. 

Some approved and experimental weight loss drugs

  • Wegovy from Novo Nordisk: Approved weekly injection that activates GLP-1
  • Zepbound from Eli Lilly: Approved weekly injection that activates GLP-1 and GIP
  • Saxenda from Novo Nordisk: Approved weekly injection that activates GLP-1
  • MariTide from Amgen: Experimental monthly injection that activates GLP-1 and blocks GIP
  • Danuglipron from Pfizer: Experimental once-daily pill that activates GLP-1
  • VK2735 from Viking Therapeutics: Experimental weekly injection that activates GLP-1 and GIP
  • Pemvidutide from Altimmune: Experimental weekly injection that activates GLP-1 and another gut hormone called glucagon
  • GSBR-1290 from Structure Therapeutics: Experimental weekly pill that activates GLP-1
  • Survodutide from Zealand Pharma, Boehringer Ingelheim: Experimental weekly injection that activates GLP-1 and glucagon

That appears to contradict how Zepbound works. Eli Lilly’s approach has proven successful: The treatment helped patients with obesity lose up to 22.5% of their weight after 72 weeks in a late-stage trial.

But Amgen’s MartiTide also was effective in a small, early-stage study. 

Patients given the highest dose of Amgen’s drug — 420 milligrams — every month lost 14.5% of their body weight on average in just 12 weeks, according to data from the phase one trial published last month in the journal Nature Metabolism. 

There’s a broader debate among researchers about why both approaches – blocking and activating GIP – are effective at promoting weight loss. 

One theory is that repeatedly activating the GIP receptor, as Zepbound does, ultimately causes the body to “self-regulate” itself and make sure there isn’t too much GIP activity, said Dr. Caroline Apovian, a director of the Center for Weight Management and Wellness at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

That decreases GIP activity overall, which is thought to essentially mimic what Amgen’s drug achieves when it blocks the GIP receptor. But Apovian cautioned that “none of this is proven” and more data is needed.

The drug could result in longer-lasting weight loss

Amgen’s treatment may be better at helping people maintain weight loss than competitors, even…

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