For decades, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and people who struggled with their weight have hoped for a magic diet pill that would help people safely shed unwanted pounds. Yet, it seems that every time a treatment looks promising, data reveals a wicked truth.
Case in point, on Feb. 13, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) called for the removal of Belviq and Belviq XR (lorcaserin) from the U.S. market after long-term clinical trial data showed that users of the prescription diet pill had a higher occurrence of cancer among nonusers of the drug. The cancers most often seen among Belviq users were pancreatic, colorectal, and lung.
Belviq wasn’t the first diet drug to be pulled from the market over health concerns. In 1997, the notorious diet drug cocktail Fen-phen was withdrawn — just 18 months after its approval — after it was linked to life-threatening heart valve problems in up to a third of patients who took it. In 2010, the weight loss drug Meridia was pulled from the market after the FDA found it increased the risk for heart attacks and offered little benefit to patients.
Still, drug companies sought to develop a safe and effective diet pill. In 2012, the FDA approved Belviq based on studies that showed patients who used the medication consistently for 52 to 104 weeks lost an average of 3% to 3.7% of the body weight. The agency was able to overlook data from laboratory rats that showed exposure to the drug increased the risk for some cancers.
But due to concerning heart data from previous diet pills, the FDA’s approval for Belviq as a long-term obesity treatment was contingent upon its manufacturer Eisai conducting long-term safety studies to evaluate whether patients were at increased risk for heart attacks or strokes.
Despite its approval, many doctors remained skeptical. “They are not very popular,” Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, an endocrinologist and assistant professor at the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of California, Los Angeles, told NBC News in 2018. “I think a lot of physicians are uncomfortable prescribing weight loss medications. Fen-phen scares off a lot of them.”
In August 2018, the long-term study results for Belviq were in and the heart data eased some doctors’ concerns. Belviq did not increase users’ risk for heart attacks or strokes. It didn’t reduce the risk, either. But in the months that followed, researchers looked more carefully at the data and discovered something alarming. Belviq users had a 7.7% occurrence of cancer compared to 7.1% among nonusers. The percentage appeared small but was statistically significant enough for the FDA to pull the plug.
In its Safety Communication calling for the withdrawal of Belviq and Belviq XR, the FDA did not recommend patients undergo special screening beyond standard screening recommendations. The news is hardly reassuring to patients who took the drug for years, trusting that it wouldn’t harm them.
Belviq cancer litigation
Roger Smith, Ryan Duplechin and Melissa Prickett, attorneys with Beasley Allen Law firm, are currently investigating individual cases of pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer and lung cancer in patients who have been treated with Belviq.