May 30, 2024

It may take a weight loss pill for Eli Lilly to finally meet demand for its popular anti-obesity medications, according to Eli Lilly’s top leader on weight loss drugs.

The pharma giant is doing all it can to ramp up production of its highly-coveted diabetes and weight loss drugs, Mounjaro and Zepbound. Yet with over 40% of American adults living with obesity, meeting demand has been a challenge.

“Even if we take the combined supply of our [medications] and the competition, it’s not sufficient to meet the needs of 110 million Americans,” President of Lilly Diabetes and Obesity Patrik Jonsson told Quartz in an interview.

Jonsson began heading the company’s most lucrative division this January. In this role, he oversees Eli Lilly’s extensive pipeline of incretin medications — the same class of drugs as Ozempic, which is produced by its rival Novo Nordisk.

Skyrocketing sales of this class of drugs has transformed Eli Lilly into the most valuable pharmaceutical company in the world, by market cap.

Morgan Stanley analysts anticipate the global market for weight loss drugs will reach $105 billion by 2030. The investment bank also expects the adoption of these treatments to reach about 31.5 million people in the U.S., about 9% of the nation’s population, by 2035.

Jonsson, who joined Eli Lilly over 30 years ago as a sales representative, theorizes that these drugs are resonating with patients because they feel and see results relatively quickly.

“That’s very different compared to when you’re on a chronic treatment for heart disease, for example,” Jonsson said. “But here you experience the difference, most of the time within a matter of weeks, and you just have a very different quality of life.”

Jonsson talked to Quartz this week about the company’s strategy to meet demand and the future of these game-changing drugs.

Eli Lilly’s strategy to meet demand

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) database says that most doses of Mounjaro and Zepbound will be in limited supply at least through the end of June, due to increased demand.

Eli Lilly has invested at least $3 billion in new manufacturing facilities over the past two years, currently building out six manufacturing sites at the same time to help increase production capacity for all of its drugs.

The company expects its sellable supply of incretins in the second half of 2024 to be 1.5 times higher than it was in the second half of last year, but that still won’t be enough to meet demand.

“We will continue to increase supply, but taking into account the huge need there would probably continue to be supply constraints until we had an oral medicine with an injectable-like efficacy,” Jonsson said.

That’s where the company’s experimental weight loss pill orforglipron comes in. The drug is currently in a phase 3 trial — its results will readout next year. Earlier trials found that it helped users lose an average of nearly 15% of weight after 36 weeks.

“I think this is really an opportunity to reach more patients and also the ones that are currently fearful of injections,” Jonsson said.

At the moment, the company does not plan to introduce single-use vials of its medications, which it has used in other markets to “provide a little bit of a relief valve” for the ongoing shortage. Mounjaro and Zepbound are sold as pre-filled auto-injections pens in the U.S.

“That’s the current plan, but having said that, we are not closing any doors,” Jonsson said.

The future of incretins

Eli Lilly already has a game plan as several pharmaceutical companies are racing to introduce their own weight loss drugs to the market.

“I think, first and foremost, Zepbound and Mounjaro will probably be the foundation of Type 2 [diabetes] and obesity treatment for quite a few years to come,” Jonsson said.

He highlighted how the company is already researching additional health benefits its current drugs provide.

For example, Eli Lilly released results last month for a trial that showed Zepbound was effective at reducing the severity of sleep obstructive apnea.

The company is currently testing the medication for the treatment of heart failure with preserved ejection fraction — a condition where the left ventricle doesn’t contract normally and results in not enough blood circulating in the body. Results for this trial are expected in the second half of the year. Additionally, it is testing Zepbound to see how well it reduces morbidity and mortality in obese patients.

These trials could pave the way for Zepbound to be covered by Medicare, expanding access to the medication. In March, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued a new guidance stating that “anti-obesity medications that receive FDA approval for an additional medically accepted indication can be considered a Part D drug for that specific use.”

Jonsson added, “when I look beyond Mounjaro and Zepbound, I am equally excited about the course we have in our hands for the future to make an even bigger impact in this space.”

Eli Lilly has nine obesity and diabetes drugs in development which could add even more health benefits to these medications.

“Retatrutide is really exciting because the amount of weight loss you have seen there was even beyond tirzepatide (the active ingredient in Zepbound),” Jonsson said. He added this could help populations that need a greater level of weight loss.

Retatrutide is currently in a phase 3 trial and is being tested for the treatment of obesity, sleep apnea, and osteoarthritis. Jonsson also brought up bimagrumab, which is in a phase 2 trial, and could potentially help prevent muscle loss associated with incretins.

Jonsson believes these advancements provide an opportunity to envision “a world free from Type 2 diabetes, or maybe even from diabetes overall, and really to manage the obesity pandemic across the globe.”

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