Prescription Weight Loss Drugs Ozempic and Weyovy Linked to Rare Blinding Condition According to Study

A groundbreaking study led by Mass Eye and Ear has linked popular weight loss drugs, Ozempic and Wegovy, to an increased risk of a rare but severe eye condition. The research underscores the importance of patient-doctor discussions about potential risks.

Popular weight loss drugs Ozempic and Wegovy, both brand names for semaglutide, have been linked to a heightened risk of a potentially blinding eye condition, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Mass Eye and Ear. The findings, published in the July 3rd issue of JAMA Ophthalmology, show a significant risk increase for developing nonarteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy (NAION) among patients prescribed these medications.

Semaglutide has gained widespread use for managing type 2 diabetes and facilitating weight loss, especially following its approval as Ozempic in 2017 and as Wegovy in 2021. However, the new study indicates that patients taking these drugs face a notable risk of NAION, a condition that can cause sudden and permanent vision loss in one eye.

“The use of these drugs has exploded throughout industrialized countries and they have provided very significant benefits in many ways, but future discussions between a patient and their physician should include NAION as a potential risk,” Joseph Rizzo, the study’s lead author and director of the Neuro-Ophthalmology Service at Mass Eye and Ear and also a professor at Harvard Medical School, said in a news release.

In this study, the researchers looked into the health records of more than 17,000 patients at Mass Eye and Ear over the past six years. The patients were categorized based on their diagnoses of diabetes or obesity and separated into groups according to whether they had been prescribed semaglutide or other weight loss or diabetes medications. The comparison revealed that diabetic patients on semaglutide were over four times more likely to be diagnosed with NAION, while those who were overweight or obese faced more than a seven-fold increase.

NAION, though relatively rare, can occur in up to 10 out of every 100,000 people. It is distinguished by reduced blood flow to the optic nerve head, frequently leading to irreversible vision loss. Unfortunately, there are currently no effective treatments for NAION, making the findings all the more critical for patients and healthcare providers.

“Our findings should be viewed as being significant but tentative, as future studies are needed to examine these questions in a much larger and more diverse population,” Rizzo added. “This is information we did not have before and it should be included in discussions between patients and their doctors, especially if patients have other known optic nerve problems like glaucoma or if there is preexisting significant visual loss from other causes.”

The hypothesis for this study emerged in late summer 2023 when three patients at Mass Eye and Ear, all of whom were on semaglutide, were diagnosed with NAION in the same week. This prompted a deeper investigation and a subsequent observational study to explore the potential link between semaglutide and NAION.

The study does face certain limitations, including a predominantly white study population and a relatively small number of NAION cases over the six-year period. Additionally, the researchers were unable to verify whether patients consistently took their medications or if their usage patterns impacted their risk.

Despite these limitations, the research highlights the necessity for more extensive studies to confirm these findings and further explore the potential risks associated with semaglutide. As these weight loss drugs continue to rise in popularity, understanding their full range of effects becomes increasingly important for medical professionals and patients alike.