Semaglutides such as Ozempic injection pens with stethescope

Semaglutides and heart disease prevention

Weight loss drugs a vital new tool in preventing heart attacks

8 April 2024

Weight loss drugs such as Ozempic, also known as semaglutide, are being hailed as a revolutionary new tool in the fight against heart disease by cardiologists worldwide, including at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.

Professor Jason Kovacic, the Institute’s CEO, says until recently cardiologists like himself only had three prescription treatment options to prevent and treat coronary heart disease – medications to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar (diabetes).

Cardiologist Prof Jason Kovacic talking with a patient

But the arrival of semaglutide, along with a growing list of medications like this, has opened the doors to finally having an effective prescription option to being able to help patients lose weight, which is critical in the fight to prevent and treat heart disease.

Semaglutide is now the first weight loss medication to be approved to help prevent life-threatening cardiovascular events in adults with cardiovascular disease and who are either obese or overweight in the United States.

Although there are significant supply and cost issues in Australia, the demand for semaglutide continues to increase. At the moment, it is only approved for use in certain patient groups with diabetes.

Professor Kovacic says, “At present, in Australia, only patients with diabetes can receive drugs like Ozempic on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), and there have been criticisms of the wider use of these drugs in people without diabetes. However there are many drug options to treat diabetes, but this is the only highly effective therapeutic option for obesity.

“Given the significant clinical trial data to support their use in certain non-diabetics who are overweight or obese, and because we know obesity itself is such an important risk factor for so many other diseases, it’s not hard to justify their wider use in select patients.

“A major issue has been with supply shortages. This is one of the main reasons there have been arguments over whether only diabetic patients should have access to these therapies. But once that is fixed and there is adequate supply, I believe few will argue against their appropriate use in overweight and obese people, in particular overweight and obese patients with heart disease, regardless of whether they have diabetes or not.”

The drug has helped Tony Mellis lose weight after suffering a heart attack just over a year ago. Tony, 57, had just laid his wife to rest and thought he was feeling unwell because of the emotional stress of the day.

Tony Mellis, heart attack survivor

But the Bondi barber was having a heart attack and ended up in hospital on what was already the worst day of his life,

Just over a year on, Tony is now one of an increasing number of heart disease survivors who have been put on Ozempic and has lost around 11kg.

Father of two Tony says: “Before I had my heart attack, I had not been taking care of myself. I was in my early 50s, the weight had crept on, and I’d eat a bacon roll for brekkie and not do as much exercise as I should. I was also dealing with my wife’s illness, so I wasn’t keeping a close eye on my risk factors – despite many family members having heart attacks.

“Ozempic has made a difference, but I know I still need to do all the other good things in my life too. So, it’s also down to me if I want to avoid having another heart attack.”

Professor Kovacic says:

“Semaglutide, and drugs like it, are a game-changer for treating heart disease and it’s already working wonders with certain patients I am seeing. They are finding it much easier to lose weight and we now have clinical trial evidence to show that in patients with cardiovascular disease who are overweight or obese, but without diabetes, semaglutide reduces the incidence of heart attack and death.”

Professor Kovacic says that as the price of these drugs comes down, and broader groups of patients become eligible to receive them, tens of thousands of Australians could potentially be on these drugs.

Professor Kovacic adds: “In the future when they are off-patent, cheap and widely available, taking a drug like Ozempic may become as routine as taking a statin.

“People question the safety of being on these drugs for years on end, and I don’t disagree that this is a valid concern that needs to be answered. But a reasonable counter-point is to consider, ‘What would you prefer, to take a drug like Ozempic for the rest of your life, or being overweight or obese with an increased risk of a heart attack that could kill you?

“So while there are unanswered long-term safety questions about Ozempic and other related drugs, that needs to be counterbalanced against the growing body of positive clinical trial data, and the fact that we know that reducing obesity is associated with long-term health benefits.”

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Tony Mellis with wife Yvette

"It's down to me if I want to avoid having another heart attack - and Ozempic has made a difference"

- Tony Mellis, heart attack survivor

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years