There are some 38 medicines in various stages of development that, used in the context of an overall plan to change diet and exercise patterns, can help tackle the growing and worrying problem of obesity.
Surveys have shown that a quarter of all women and 23 per cent of men in the UK are obese, with two-thirds of men and 58 per cent of women overweight. Being overweight is associated with a greater risk of developing a number of diseases that may cause serious health problems and significantly shorten lifespan.
"The pharmaceutical industry is very far from promoting medicines as the only answer to obesity, but they can prove useful as part of an appropriate care plan devised between doctor and patient," said Dr Richard Tiner, ABPI Medical Director.
"There are currently only three such medicines licensed in the UK but, because the industry is aware of the increasing problem and its consequences to the health of so many people in Britain, it has been looking at how more and different medicines can be developed to help tackle the condition."
The ABPI's report, Target Obesity, confirms that an effort to control the problem is required sooner rather than later. It has been projected that, within three years, about 6.6 million men and 6.0 million women over the age of 16 will be obese - an increase of more than 3.5 million over the number in 2003. Some 1.7 million children will also be obese by 2010.
The cost of treating the increased burden of obesity-related illnesses was about £1,000 million in 2002, so this expected increase is likely to have a severe economic, as well as health, impact.
While specific genes related to overweight have recently been identified, the report emphasises they are 'susceptibility' genes that predispose to the condition but do not cause it.
Medicines to combat obesity fall into several different types, including those that:
Inhibit receptors in the brain and other areas, including fat cells, which play a role in energy balance, glucose and lipid metabolism and body-weight regulation. Research into this class of medicines is "currently quite vigorous", the booklet reports.
Block enzymes in the intestine that are responsible for fat uptake from food, as well as those that use other approaches to blocking fat absorption.
Work on processes in the brain that may influence food intake and energy expenditure.
Act on signalling systems - for example, the stomach, intestine and pancreas produce chemical signals that play an important part in eating behaviour and energy regulation by the brain.
Overall, the report concludes that improved understanding of the mechanisms of weight gain and loss has opened up a number of exciting new approaches for the future. "The intensity of research in this area is a cause for optimism that additional, better-tolerated and more effective medicines for weight loss may be in sight," Target Obesity states.
Target Obesity has been written by Dr Stephen Bartlett.
NOTE TO EDITORS
There is a range of guides in the Target series covering a wide variety of diseases and conditions.