Anti-Obesity Therapy: from Rainbow Pills to Polyagonists

Pharmacol Rev. 2018 Oct;70(4):712-746. doi: 10.1124/pr.117.014803.


With their ever-growing prevalence, obesity and diabetes represent major health threats of our society. Based on estimations by the World Health Organization, approximately 300 million people will be obese in 2035. In 2015 alone there were more than 1.6 million fatalities attributable to hyperglycemia and diabetes. In addition, treatment of these diseases places an enormous burden on our health care system. As a result, the development of pharmacotherapies to tackle this life-threatening pandemic is of utmost importance. Since the beginning of the 19th century, a variety of drugs have been evaluated for their ability to decrease body weight and/or to improve deranged glycemic control. The list of evaluated drugs includes, among many others, sheep-derived thyroid extracts, mitochondrial uncouplers, amphetamines, serotonergics, lipase inhibitors, and a variety of hormones produced and secreted by the gastrointestinal tract or adipose tissue. Unfortunately, when used as a single hormone therapy, most of these drugs are underwhelming in their efficacy or safety, and placebo-subtracted weight loss attributed to such therapy is typically not more than 10%. In 2009, the generation of a single molecule with agonism at the receptors for glucagon and the glucagon-like peptide 1 broke new ground in obesity pharmacology. This molecule combined the beneficial anorectic and glycemic effects of glucagon-like peptide 1 with the thermogenic effect of glucagon into a single molecule with enhanced potency and sustained action. Several other unimolecular dual agonists have subsequently been developed, and, based on their preclinical success, these molecules illuminate the path to a new and more fruitful era in obesity pharmacology. In this review, we focus on the historical pharmacological approaches to treat obesity and glucose intolerance and describe how the knowledge obtained by these studies led to the discovery of unimolecular polypharmacology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Obesity / drug therapy*
  • Weight Loss