The biggest test yet of an experimental pill that promises to help people lose weight and stop smoking found that it helped people not only lose weight but also keep it off for two years -- longer than any other diet drug. Cholesterol and other health measures improved, too.
The impressive results from a study of more than 3,000 obese people were presented at a medical conference Tuesday, capping months of anticipation about the new drug, Acomplia, made by the French pharmaceutical firm Sanofi-Aventis.
Doctors called the research exciting and the company, which funded the study, thinks the drug could have blockbuster potential similar to cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.
In a study of 3,040 obese people throughout the United States and Canada, those given the higher of two doses of the drug lost more than 5 percent of their initial body weight, and a third of them lost more than 10 percent.
"They achieved and maintained a weight loss of 8.6kg as compared to 2.3kg in the placebo group," said Dr. F-Xavier Pi-Sunyer of Columbia University in New York, who led the research and presented results at the American Heart Association conference.
Those who stopped taking the pill in the second year of the study regained most of what they had lost, suggesting that people might have to take the drug indefinitely to maintain a lower weight.
About two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese, raising their risk of everything from cancer and cardiovascular disease to sore joints and snoring. About a fourth of American adults smoke, which brings many of the same woes.
Drugs now on the market either are designed for short-term use or have distasteful side effects like bowel problems that make many shy away from them.
Acomplia's maker thinks it will avoid those problems by attacking obesity in a novel way, and plans to seek federal approval for it next year.
It is the first diet drug aimed at blocking the "pleasure center" of the brain and interfering with the cycle of craving and satisfaction that drives many compulsive behaviors and addictions. This same circuitry is activated when people smoke pot.
The study involved people who either were severely obese or were moderately obese and also had another heart-related health problem such as low "good" cholesterol, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar.
"What we have here now is essentially a brand new mechanism to treat an epidemic of staggering progression," said Douglas Greene, Sanofi's vice president.