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Popular obesity drug may help treat sleep apnoea

A woman demonstrates how she puts on her sleep apnea breathing device at her home in Los Angeles.
A woman demonstrates how she puts on her sleep apnea breathing device at her home in Los Angeles. Copyright Reed Saxon/AP Photo, File
Copyright Reed Saxon/AP Photo, File
By Euronews with AP
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The drug tirzepatide is marketed as Mounjaro and Zepbound by pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and belongs to the same class of drugs as semaglutide.

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A popular weight-loss drug may help people who struggle with a serious sleep disorder, according to a new study.

Tirzepatide, the medication in the weight-loss drug Zepbound and the diabetes treatment Mounjaro, appeared to reduce the severity of sleep apnoea, according to a new study.

The findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, and included 469 people with obesity and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA).

OSA is a disorder where people stop breathing while they are asleep because the tissue in the throat relaxes and collapses during sleep, fully or partially blocking the airway.

Tirzepatide also reduced weight and improved blood pressure in patients with obesity who took the drug for a year.

Half of them used what's typically known as a CPAP machine that feeds oxygen through a mask to keep airways open during sleep while the other group included people for whom a CPAP machine had failed or wasn't tolerated.

Patients who received weekly injections of tirzepatide reduced the number of episodes per hour that their breathing slowed or stopped during sleep by about half to nearly 60 per cent, compared to about 10 per cent in people who got a dummy drug.

Up to half of the patients taking tirzepatide reduced the apnoea episodes enough to potentially resolve the disorder, compared with up to 16 per cent of those using the placebo medication, according to the research.

Patients who took the drug also lost between 18 and 20 per cent of their body weight and showed improvements in blood pressure and a condition in which blood oxygen drops during sleep.

Patients also reported better sleep and fewer sleep disturbances, the study found.

The drug's maker Eli Lilly and Co. paid for the research and will ask US regulators to expand the medicine's use to treat moderate to severe sleep apnoea.

Could the drug be used to treat sleep apnoea in the future?

"The results of the study have demonstrated the ability of tirzepatide to address both obesity and sleep apnoea, offering an effective and comprehensive treatment solution," said Atul Malhotra, a professor of medicine at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

"Its potential to be used alongside or independently of CPAP could revolutionise how we manage these interconnected conditions. These findings show the potential for the first highly effective drug treatment for sleep apnoea," Malhotra said in a statement.

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Sanjay Patel, a sleep medicine specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, cautioned that whether tirzepatide can treat sleep apnoea in real-world patients “remains unclear” because of the way improvement is measured.

He also noted that cost and access remain obstacles to using the drug and that the addition of the drug as a treatment could exacerbate racial and other disparities in addressing sleep apnoea.

Dr Paul Peppard, a sleep medicine researcher at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study, said losing weight has long been recommended as a way to reduce the severity of sleep apnoea by expanding lung capacity, reducing fat in the airways and improving oxygen usage.

“I expect that these drugs could be used as a tool to treat many of the established outcomes of obesity,” Peppard said.

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