For the first time in 17 years, the FDA has approved an anti-obesity medicine for teens. As of now, one in five teens in the U.S. have the disease, and the pandemic is not helping. As the drug heads to the open market, researchers are working to get it to those who need it most.
“Obesity is primarily a biologically driven disease,” said Dr. Aaron Kelly, co-chair of the Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
The center focuses on intervention and treatment. Kelly says, like diabetes or high blood pressure, it has to be treated and managed.
“We have many individuals who are predisposed genetically or biologically to struggle with their weight management,” Kelly said. “There are underlying factors with their energy regulatory system, the way their body works, their metabolism that simply makes it so we’re not all on an equal playing field.”
The center also works on removing the stigma associated with obesity.
“Kids who struggle with their weight are teased mercilessly,” said Kelly. “It's one of the few areas that people can get away with bullying these days. You don’t see it in other areas anymore. These kids really struggle with this; it's a real stigmatized issue.”
The center’s researchers looked at a medication that was approved for adult obesity a number of years ago and knew it could be of use in pediatrics.
“I think what we’ve found is that many adolescents who have struggled with weight their whole life and have tried everything and it hasn’t worked are willing to undergo therapies and do things they might not normally be willing to do,” Kelly said.
The FDA approved the pediatric version of liraglutide for those ages 12 and up. It has to be prescribed and there are specific BMI criteria.
“It's really hard to achieve a healthy weight and keep it down. It's not a willpower thing; it's not because you’re lazy. It's abnormal biology,” said Dr. Claudia Fox, associate professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine.
She's seen patients as young as 9 months old dealing with obesity. She says more research needs to be done. They're looking at when to start medication and how to sequence it. Their center is unique and works to combat the pervasive misunderstanding of obesity as a disease.
"It's not just the kids; it's the parents, too,” Fox said. “They feel shame and blame. They feel like they’re bad parents. It's difficult.”
Insurance is the next battle, determining how to get insurance companies to cover the drug. And while no means a cure, it's the right step in not only changing perception, but helping children battle something they have no control over.