Study Raises Possibility of Byetta, Victoza Cancer Link

The type 2 diabetes medications <"">Byetta and Victoza are coming under more scrutiny because of their possible association with cancer. According to a report from Bloomberg News, a recent review has found that patients taking Byetta or Merck & Co.’s Januvia had a six-fold increase risk pancreatitis, which can be a precursor for pancreatic cancer. While the review did not deal specifically with Victoza, it is in the same class of drugs as Byetta.

Both Byetta and Victoza are injectable medications known as glucagon-like-peptide-1 (GLP-1) receptor agonists. According to the Bloomberg report, sales of GLP-1’s are increasing as doctors seek alternatives to older drugs for a disease that affects 366 million people worldwide. These drugs were already under suspicion because of a possible link to pancreatitis and thyroid tumors.

This new review, detailed in July in the journal Gastroenterology, expressed concern that the GLP-1 drug class “could have serious unintended and unpredicted side effects,” according to Bloomberg. To conduct the study, researchers analyzed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s database of reported adverse events from 2004 to 2009. They found that pancreatitis – a risk factor for cancer – and pancreatic cancer were more common among patients who took Byetta and Januvia (which also acts on GLP-1, but belongs to a class of drugs called dipeptidyl peptidase-4 inhibitors) compared to those who used other drug therapies to control type 2 diabetes.

One of the study authors, Peter Butler of UCLA, surmised that GPL-1’s could “act on the so-called exocrine pancreas, promoting unnecessary proliferation of pancreatic duct cells that may then partially obstruct the passage of digestive enzymes, a cause of local pancreatic inflammation,” according to Bloomberg. He also called for more studies of this class of diabetes drugs.

“There are now several animal studies as well as clinical reports from humans that taken together raise concern that there may well be serious unexpected side effects of the GLP-1 class of drugs on the pancreas,” he told Bloomberg via email.

Butler will present data from the Gastroenterology study this week during a meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes conference in Lisbon this week, Bloomberg said.

This isn’t the first time Victoza and Byetta have sparked cancer worries. In June, the Institute for Safe Medicine Practices reported in its May issue of QuarterWatch that data to the FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting database indicated that Victoza accounted for 70 cases of acute and chronic pancreatitis in the third quarter of 2010, and 105 cases since approval nine months earlier. This result was surpassed only by, Byetta, with 78 cases. As we reported at the time, the QuarterWatch article asserted that evidence is growing drugs that act on GLP-1 increase the risk of pancreatitis, and that the risk may be higher for injectable like Victoza and Byetta. But, it pointed out that “studies to determine the incidence, identify differences between drugs and provide the basis to weigh these risks against possible benefits have not been performed.”

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