Diabetes patients, who were prescribed the newest type of diabetes medication, may be at higher risk of pancreatitis, the inflammation of the pancreas. Since the pancreas is already compromised in people with diabetes, the real question, as it often is with medications, is whether the risks of taking these new drugs outweigh their very real benefits.
The new class of medications is known as glucagon-like peptide-1-based therapies (GLP-1). The generic names for the drugs are sitagliptin and exenatide, and they are sold under the brand names Januvia® and Byetta®.
These new diabetes drugs are very effective in lowering blood glucose. However, important safety findings may not have been fully explored and some side effects such as acute pancreatitis don't appear until widespread use after approval.
The risk of pancreatitis explored in the study is not news. Previous animal studies had suggested the same connection, and the FDA has been aware of the risk. But the new study measured the level of risk in people who had recently been prescribed the medications, which could not accurately be quantified until after the drugs were approved and on the market.
"These agents are used by millions of Americans with diabetes,” said lead author Sonal Singh in a statement. “[They] are very effective in lowering blood glucose. However, important safety findings may not have been fully explored and some side effects such as acute pancreatitis don't appear until widespread use after approval.”
People with diabetes are already at higher risk of developing pancreatitis, the symptoms of which include abdominal pain, along with nausea and persistent vomiting. Significant inflammation can occur in the pancreas, causing lesions on the organ. In diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, or the body is not able to use insulin properly.
If you are on one of the GLP-1 medications, ask your doctor if you have questions or concerns about them (never stop taking a medication without consulting your doctor). Though the risks associated with the therapies may sound worrisome, there are also clear benefits that come with the drugs. Weighing the costs and benefits of any medication is always the big question in medicine and one that deserves a thorough discussion between doctor and patient.
The study was carried out by a team at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and published in JAMA Internal Medicine.