Weight-loss jabs such as Ozempic and Wegovy could also tackle life-threatening kidney disease and save thousands of patients from requiring dialysis or a transplant, research has found.
The drug, also known as semaglutide, was originally designed to treat diabetes but has been shown to be highly effective at combating obesity, too, with patients on the highest doses shedding a fifth of their weight.
The Mail on Sunday can now reveal that people with chronic kidney disease (CKD) could become the latest patients offered the treatment on the NHS, as the health service tries to combat the growing problem.
CKD occurs when the two organs – which remove waste products from the blood and produce urine – no longer work as well as they should. It typically gets worse over time and the damage cannot be reversed.
The condition affects 7.2 million Britons, but this figure is expected to rise by about 400,000 over the next decade, mainly due to the increasing number of high blood pressure and obesity cases – a major trigger for CKD. The number of CKD sufferers requiring life-saving dialysis treatment, when they’re hooked up to a machine several times a week which cleans the blood, is expected to quadruple in that time, which could cost the taxpayer £5 billion a year.
People with chronic kidney disease could become the latest patients offered semaglutide jabs on the NHS , as the health service tries to combat the growing problem
But researchers claim that offering them early treatment with semaglutide would be a game-changing solution that could prevent the health service from becoming overwhelmed.
‘This drug could completely change how we treat kidney disease,’ says Professor Katherine Tuttle, a kidney researcher at the University of Washington who is leading a major semaglutide trial.
‘We could save so many lives, and thousands from requiring dialysis or the anxiety of needing a new organ.’
She adds: ‘We are at a revolutionary time for kidney disease – this could turn out to be one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history.’
While people with high blood pressure and diabetes are most at risk of developing CKD, the condition also significantly raises the risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attacks and strokes, which are the most common causes of death for advanced CKD patients.
Semaglutide is part of a class of drugs known as glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists, the first of which were developed almost two decades ago for type 2 diabetes. These drugs mimic the GLP-1 hormone in the gut that helps with the release of insulin – another hormone which regulates blood sugar. Scientists also found they suppressed appetite, leading to weight loss.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last year hailed the medicine and announced a pilot scheme that would allow GPs to offer the weekly injection to obese patients – but its surge in popularity as a weight-loss treatment has created worldwide shortages that have seen diabetics struggle to get vital supplies.
However, weight loss was not the only unintended side effect of GLP-1 drugs discovered by researchers.
A 2018 study in the US found that kidney disease patients taking a different GLP-1 drug saw a significant reduction in a protein called albumin in their urine – a high amount can be a sign that the kidneys are not working properly.
‘These were striking findings,’ says Prof Tuttle. ‘Patients had declining kidney function at the start of the trial but saw their condition stabilise once they started taking a GLP-1 drug.’
A separate study, published last year, found that type 2 diabetics who also had kidney disease saw their condition stabilise after taking semaglutide. And at the end of last year, Novo Nordisk – the manufacturer of semaglutide – ended a trial of the weekly injection early, after data appeared to show the drug was effective at slowing kidney disease.
Significantly, Prof Tuttle says the drug seems to be most effective on patients with severe kidney damage. ‘This could help those patients right on the edge of needing a transplant,’ she adds.
This would be welcome news to the 5,000 patients in the UK waiting for a kidney transplant – NHS figures suggest many wait as long as three years.
It is still unclear why semaglutide has such a pronounced effect on kidney disease.
‘It’s possible GLP-1 drugs have an anti-inflammatory effect,’ says Prof Tuttle. ‘Kidney disease is often defined by scarring inside the organ, but early studies suggest GLP-1 agonists may protect patients from this damage.
‘We hope that, if patients get treated long enough, they could begin to get better.’
Crucially, some data suggests that semaglutide may even heal this kidney scarring, opening the doors to a cure.
If approved as a treatment for CKD, experts claim that it would likely be given alongside other kidney drugs. The NHS has already approved the roll-out of two daily tablets, empagliflozin and dapagliflozin, which are shown to reduce the risk of CKD progression and death by nearly a third.
‘We believe combining semaglutide with these pills could reduce the risk of progression even further,’ Prof Tuttle says.
Kidney disease charities say it is crucial the Government finds a solution to the shortage of semaglutide in the UK. Demand for the drug, fuelled by celebrity endorsements from the likes of Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey – who used it to lose weight – has led to a world-wide shortfall. The Mail on Sunday last month revealed that the NHS expects this to last into 2025 due to the high demand among dieters.
Health officials have repeatedly urged private weight-loss clinicians to not prescribe the drug for any use other than diabetes care.
Save the jabs for ill people like me
One kidney disease patient already taking semaglutide is Dawn Cerruto, 52, who has lived with the condition for 26 years.
The social worker from New Jersey underwent dialysis for three years after diagnosis before receiving a transplant.
While her kidney disease has remained relatively stable since then, she later developed diabetes, which is why she began taking semaglutide last year.
‘At first I experienced some stomach aches and actually lost too much weight,’ Dawn says. ‘However, I’m now on a smaller dose and my diabetes is stable.’
Dawn Cerruto, 52, a social worker from New Jersey, has lived with the condition for 26 years
It was only recently that Dawn found out the injection – which she self-administers once a week – could also prevent her kidney disease from getting worse.
‘When I read that I thought to myself, I guess I’m on the right drug.
‘My doctors told me that the new kidney I have will likely last another ten years, but hopefully taking semaglutide will help extend that time further.’
However, Dawn – who is also an ambassador for the American Kidney Fund charity – says that the current worldwide shortages of semaglutide concern her.
‘It’s such good news that it could help prevent kidney disease getting worse, but so many people are taking it because they just want to lose some weight,’ she explains.
‘There are patients like me who really need this drug, so it should only be considered a last resort for patients who are otherwise healthy.’