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How one drug can treat multiple conditions

Sometimes, a drug that works for one condition can also have benefits for another one because the human body has many intricate mechanisms and processes—for example, Science’s 2023 breakthrough of the year - GLP-1 agonists.

When researchers develop a drug, they focus on a specific target, like managing blood sugar in diabetes. But sometimes, these drugs can work on other targets, too. Semaglutide (a GLP-1 agonist), for example, not only boosts insulin production but also reduces appetite and slows digestion, leading to weight loss with some ‘manageable’ side effects. This unexpected benefit opened the door for its approval in obesity treatment.

After realising this breakthrough, doctors started prescribing Semaglutide off-label as a weight loss medication. This unexpected benefit opened the door for its approval in obesity treatment.

Off-label prescribing: why?

Even for approved uses, not every drug works for every patient. Doctors, with their clinical expertise, can sometimes prescribe a drug for a condition it's not officially approved for, known as "off-label" use. This is acceptable as long as it's based on strong scientific evidence and in the patient's best interest. E.g., if there are no approved drugs for the specific condition, they may consider using a drug approved for a different purpose that could potentially help. Or if they've already tried all approved treatments without success, they might try using an approved drug for an unapproved use. The versatility of drugs like semaglutide offers new hope for treating complex diseases.