Ozempic Isn't Linked to Pancreatic Cancer

Ozempic and other GLP-1 receptor agonists do not increase the risk of pancreatic cancer in diabetes patients, a study finds.

Over 60,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the United States every year. Being one of the deadliest cancers, it has a five-year relative survival rate of 12%.

With an increasing utilization of GLP-1 receptor agonists (GLP-1RAs), novel type 2 diabetes drugs frequently used off-label for weight loss, there is a growing concern about their possible side effects. For instance, research from the 2010s has suggested that GLP-1RAs may elevate the risk of pancreatic cancer.

A new study published in JAMA Pharmacy and Clinical Pharmacology found that type 2 diabetes patients who use GLP-1 receptor agonists are not at a higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who use insulin only.

The study examined the data from 543,595 patients aged 21 to 89 years with type 2 diabetes in Israel treated with GLP-1RAs or insulin. Most (79%) patients were overweight or had obesity.

The participants were followed up for over nine years, or until pancreatic cancer diagnosis, death, or reaching the age of 90.

A total of 1,665 patients received pancreatic cancer diagnoses during the study period. They were, on average, four years older, had lower body mass index (BMI), and were less likely to have low socioeconomic status compared to pancreatic cancer-free participants.

The rates of pancreatic cancer among GLP-1 receptor agonist users and those who were treated with insulin only were similar, the study found.

The researchers note that the exact type of GLP-1RAs that patients used was not available. Moreover, they could not account for alcohol use or past exposure to pesticides or chemicals, common risk factors for pancreatic cancer.

Research on side effects is conflicting

In type 2 diabetes patients, GLP-1 receptor agonists can effectively improve blood sugar levels, reduce weight and blood pressure, and have a cardioprotective effect. Moreover, the medications don't increase the risk of hypoglycemia, a condition in which blood sugar levels drop below the standard range.

When used for obesity treatment, the medications may help to lose up to 15% of body weight if combined with exercising and a healthy diet. Weight, however, may return within a year after discontinuing the medication.

At the same time, the use of GLP-1RAs is associated with multiple health risks. A recent study suggests that non-diabetic patients taking the medications for weight loss are at a higher risk of pancreatitis, bowel obstruction, and stomach paralysis.

A 2017 systematic review of 113 trials did not link the use of GLP-1RAs to pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer but associated the medications with a significantly increased risk of gallstones.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently looking into the reports of these drugs causing hair loss, suicidal thoughts, and aspiration, or the inhalation of food into the airway.

However, a study published in Nature Medicine in January suggests that type 2 diabetes patients who took semaglutide — a type of GLP-1RAs — had a 49% to 73% lower risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts or ideation than those taking other drugs for weight loss or diabetes management.

Although the study shows GLP-1 receptor agonists like Ozempic do not increase pancreatic cancer risk, it is crucial to discuss any side effects or new symptoms with your healthcare provider.

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