updated 1/3/2008 2:53:51 PM ET 2008-01-03T19:53:51

The race for a magic weight-loss pill will heat up in 2008, with several major pharmaceutical companies expected to release key clinical trial data on drugs that appear to generate more weight loss than anything now on the market.

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The diet industry is a multibillion-dollar enterprise, with companies such as WeightWatchers, Nutrisystem and Medifast kicking off the year by marketing diet and behavioral changes to consumers who have made losing weight their top New Year's resolution.

But the quest hasn't abated for a long-term weight-loss solution in the form of a pill capable of solving the nation's growing obesity epidemic.

In the U.S., Europe and Japan, the market for weight-loss drugs totaled about $600 million in 2005, and is expected to surge globally to roughly $2 billion in 2010, according to a recent report from drug industry market information provider Espicom Healthcare Intelligence.

Billions of dollars at stake
Clearly people will pay whatever it takes to lose weight without restrictive diets and exercise, and the company that can make that happen could bring in billions.

"Doctors and patients tell us there is tremendous interest in a medicine that can provide safe, double-digit weight loss," said Daniel M. Bradbury, president and chief executive of San Diego-based Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc., which is heavily pursuing drugs for obesity.

About half a dozen drugs are currently available by prescription for weight loss and obesity including Roche Laboratories Inc.'s Xenical and Abbott Laboratories' Meridia. But weight loss with current drugs is rarely more than 10 percent, and these products can cause unpleasant side effects.

British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline had some success in 2007 with its over-the-counter weight-loss drug Alli, which like Xenical eliminates a portion of ingested fat before it can be stored in the body. Glaxo reported third-quarter sales of its over-the-counter drugs grew 24 percent to $827.5 million, boosted in part by the launch of Alli in the U.S.

But competition is rising, with at least 30 companies now targeting the market, particularly with combinations of drugs currently for sale. Pfizer Inc. and Bristol-Squibb recently teamed up to develop DGAT-1 inhibitors, or compounds that target the DGAT enzyme critical to the creation of triglycerides and fat storage. Other vying for a piece of the obesity drug market include Orexigen Therapeutics Inc., Novo Nordisk A/S, Merck & Co., Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc., Vivus Inc. and Athersys Inc.

Double-digit weight loss
"Overall what we're starting to see is the use of combination products that could approach the levels of efficacy of some surgeries, and that's unprecedented," said Lazard Capital Markets analyst Matthew Osborne in an interview. "If you're seeing greater than 15 to 20 percent weight loss, that is a significant benefit over the existing class of drugs, which show around 5 percent weight loss and short-lived results."

San Diego-based Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. has an obesity product, Lorcaserin, already in late-stage trials. In March, the company is expected to report critical safety results. The drug, which hasn't shown safety issues so far, has been under intense scrutiny by analysts who are concerned about its marketing viability, since Lorcaserin is said to work similarly to now discontinued Fen-Phen, which caused heart problems.

Meanwhile, Amylin has seen success with its diabetes drug Byetta, after patients reported weight loss as a welcomed side effect, prompting doctors to prescribe it off-label to overweight patients. Amylin now is pursuing another diabetes drug, Symlin (pramlintide), for obesity, in combination with other hormones and already available obesity drugs.

The company expects to complete a midstage study of pramlintide plus leptin in 2008.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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