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Study: Popular diabetes drugs not linked to increased pancreatic cancer risk

January 18, 2024

Orange, Calif. — A recent study has found that popular weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy are not linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer.

UCI Health bariatric medicine expert Dr. Kishore M. Gadde is cautiously optimistic about the findings, saying that more time is needed to study the drugs, which are collectively known as GLP-1 receptor agonists. He was not involved with the study.

Published Jan. 4 in JAMA Network Open, the researchers examined an Israeli health system database of 500,000 patients who were taking the drugs to treat type 2 diabetes. Patients were followed for an average of six years. The study found no increased risk of pancreatic cancer in those taking the drugs compared with those who were taking insulin.

While Gadde calls the latest results comforting, he notes that earlier studies did reveal a higher risk for the disease. Two such studies were published in 2022 and 2023, using data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Adverse Events Reporting System.

“Those studies showed a strong association between the use of GLP-1 receptor antagonists and pancreatic cancer,” he says.

Another concern is that clinical trials for the GLP-1 drugs typically excluded those with significant pre-existing pancreatic disease. There also may be differences among the various GLP-1 receptor agonists regarding risks.

The authors of the study also lacked access to which medications the patients were prescribed. Gadde recommends more investigation of individual GLP-1 drugs.

In addition, there is inadequate information about the safety GLP-1 medications in certain clinical situations.

“For example, are GLP-1RAs safe in patients with obesity and certain gastrointestinal tumors to help them lose weight prior to a surgical procedure,” he notes. “Or among patients with a history of pancreatitis, what timeframe is acceptable for starting a GLP-1 medication?

“We need more real-world data,” Gadde says.

In the meantime, he advises caution and careful monitoring of patients using these drugs, which have been linked to other serious health conditions.

“Until we have more data, we need to be watchful about the risks of pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, bowel obstruction and clinically significant gastroparesis [delayed gastric emptying] when prescribing GLP-1 receptor agonists.”

Gadde is a professor of surgery and psychiatry and human behavior at the UCI School of Medicine. He primarily conducts clinical research in obesity, type 2 diabetes and other weight-related disorders. His clinical interests include obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health and medical weight management.

He is the author of more than 80 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters, and the first or senior author of numerous publications in high-impact journals. He also has served as the lead investigator and international coordinating investigator of numerous clinical trials of drugs for obesity, type 2 diabetes and other weight-related metabolic disorders.

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UCI Health is the clinical enterprise of the University of California, Irvine, and the only academic health system in Orange County. Patients can access UCI Health at primary and specialty care offices across Orange County and at its main campus, UCI Medical Center in Orange, Calif. The 459-bed, acute care hospital, listed among America’s Best Hospitals by U.S. News & World Report for 23 consecutive years, provides tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, behavioral health and rehabilitation services. UCI Medical Center is home to Orange County’s only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center, high-risk perinatal/neonatal program and American College of Surgeons-verified Level I adult and Level II pediatric trauma center, gold level 1 geriatric emergency department and regional burn center. UCI Health serves a region of nearly 4 million people in Orange County, western Riverside County and southeast Los Angeles County. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.