Big pharma battles the bulge – but where’s the profit?
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Big pharma battles the bulge – but where’s the profit?

The obesity epidemic is continuing to increase, as waistlines round the world expand and raise the specter of a serious health crisis in the near future. Health conditions associated with obesity are already a global problem (think diabetes, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and mobility issues). And they are set to become more prevalent, unless we can find a solution that deals with obesity itself, rather than its side effects. That’s one of the main goals of the pharmaceutical industry: to battle the bulge.

Big players in the pharmaceutical industry, like Novartis, Novo and Sanofi, are already experimenting with advanced drugs that could offer a solution to the problem. Fat-loss supplements don’t have a fantastic track record, but the ones on the market today are safer and more effective than their predecessors. That’s good news, because demand is increasing.


Vas Narasimhan, global head of drug development at Novartis, said: “Given the public-health crisis around the world with obesity, if we can find a medicine that has strong efficacy and reasonable tolerability there’s no question there’s a very large market here and it would potentially have a big impact on health care.”

However, it’s not as clear as that. The relatively modest effects that most weight loss drugs provide – coupled with the criticism of medicine as a weight loss aid – mean that only 2% of excessively overweight people use them. The area’s background as a breeding ground for dangerous snake oil salesmen doesn’t help matters either.

Nonetheless, Novartis is currently working on a therapy that could help users lose as much as 10% to 15% of their body weight. Narasimhan said that the company had never been able to “thread the needle” when it came to weight loss previously, but that “now we have more mechanisms that we can take forward.”

If they can get over social and regulatory hurdles, an obesity cure might be just what the doctor ordered – both for Novartis and their patients.


Dominion holds Novartis in its Global Trends Managed Fund.

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