Semaglutide, a popular drug used to treat type 2 diabetes, has been found to have a new potential benefit. While it was originally designed to help diabetic patients regulate their blood sugar levels, a small study has discovered that it could help restore the function of immune cells that target cancer, regardless of whether people lost weight with the treatment.
Restoring natural killer cells
Natural killer cells are part of the body’s innate immune system, which targets cancerous cells and fights infections. However, people with obesity often have a dysfunctional immune system, which may be linked to the fact that they are prone to other chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many types of cancer. They are also more susceptible to worse outcomes if they contract infections such as influenza and COVID-19.
Researchers from University College Dublin investigated whether repurposing semaglutide for obesity could help correct some of the immune imbalance seen in obesity. The study recruited 20 obese people without diabetes who were about to commence once-weekly semaglutide therapy to manage their weight and looked at samples of their circulating immune cells after six months of treatment.
In a series of lab-based examinations, the researchers found that the participants’ natural killer cells were no longer in slumps and had begun producing the signaling molecules they normally should, called cytokines. The overall number of natural killer cells in the patients’ blood samples had not changed compared to baseline, but their function was restored.
More research needed
Without a control group, it is not yet clear how this compares to people without obesity or those given a placebo. However, the researchers believe that restoring natural killer cells to their full fighting power could help reduce the risk of cancer. The researchers are particularly interested in understanding how cell metabolism underpins immune dysfunction in obesity, as it seems to regulate natural killer cell activity, which could tie the whole story together.
While weight loss is what semaglutide is mainly known for, only roughly half of the study participants lost weight on semaglutide, which suggests its restorative effects on immune cells might be irrespective of weight loss.
The study’s findings represent positive news for people living with obesity on GLP-1 therapy and suggest the benefits of this family of treatments may extend to a reduction in cancer risk. However, further research is needed to explore how existing drugs may help address some of the comorbidities of obesity.