Diabetes Drug Tirzepatide Shows Promise as First Effective Therapy for Sleep Apnea in Obese Patients

Researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and international collaborators have led a global study demonstrating the potential of tirzepatide, a drug known to manage type 2 diabetes, as the first effective drug therapy for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in patients diagnosed with obesity. The results, published in the June 21, 2024 online edition of New England Journal of Medicine, highlight the treatment’s potential to improve the quality of life for millions worldwide affected by OSA.

Atul Malhotra, MD, lead author of the study, professor of medicine at University of California San Diego School of Medicine and director of sleep medicine at UC San Diego Health, said, “This study marks a significant milestone in the treatment of OSA, offering a promising new therapeutic option that addresses both respiratory and metabolic complications.”

Tirzepatide Reduces Breathing Interruptions and Improves Overall Health

The study involved 469 participants diagnosed with clinical obesity and living with moderate-to-severe OSA, recruited from sites in nine different countries. Patients were administered either 10 or 15 mg of tirzepatide by injection or a placebo, and the impact was evaluated over 52 weeks.

Researchers found that tirzepatide led to a significant decrease in the number of breathing interruptions during sleep, a key indicator used to measure the severity of OSA. This improvement was much greater than what was seen in participants that were given a placebo. Some participants that took the drug reached a point where CPAP therapy, the most common sleep apnea treatment, might not be necessary.

Additionally, the drug therapy improved other aspects related to OSA, such as reducing the risk factors of cardiovascular diseases and improved body weight. The most common side effect reported was mild stomach issues.

A New Era of OSA Management for Obese Patients

“Historically, treating OSA meant using devices during sleep, like a CPAP machine, to alleviate breathing difficulties and symptoms,” Malhotra said. “However, its effectiveness relies on consistent use. This new drug treatment offers a more accessible alternative for individuals who cannot tolerate or adhere to existing therapies.”

Malhotra adds that having a drug therapy for OSA represents a significant advancement in the field. “It means we can offer an innovative solution, signifying hope and a new standard of care to provide relief to countless individuals and their families who have struggled with the limitations of existing treatments,” said Malhotra. “This breakthrough opens the door to a new era of OSA management for people diagnosed with obesity, potentially transforming how we approach and treat this pervasive condition on a global scale.”

Next steps include conducting clinical trials to examine longer term effects of tirzepatide. The study’s co-authors include researchers from various institutions worldwide, and funding support came, in part, from Eli Lilly and Company.

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