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  • Popular Weight Loss Drug Does Not Appear to Worsen Diabetic Eye Disease in Most Patients, New Study Suggests

    Reseachers address growing concern over vision loss in people taking semaglutide

    SAN FRANCISCO  Even as use of the diabetes drug semaglutide surged in popularity for its ability to help people lower their glucose levels and better manage their weight, one potential side effect continued to give both phyicians and patients pause: vision loss. A new review of real-world data offers some reassuring news. It appears that most people taking semaglutide do not develop diabetic retinopathy or experience a worsening of existing diabetic retinopathy. The study will be presented this week at AAO 2023, the 127th annual meeting of the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

    The lead researcher Zeeshan Haq, MD, from Retina Consultants of Minnesota, said further investigation is even more important now since the U.S. FDA recently greenlighted use of semaglutide as a weight loss aid. Ophthalmologists need more data to inform screening guidelines, monitoring schedules, and patient counseling.

    Diabetic retinopathy is an eye condition that can cause vision loss and blindness in people who have diabetes. It happens when high blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the back of the eye. Semaglutide effectively decreases blood sugar and it reduces appetite and causes the stomach to empty more slowly, so that a person feels fuller faster. 

    But the effectiveness of semaglutide in causing a sudden drop in blood sugar, also known as glucose levels, is also a reason for concern. Previous studies have found a link between a rapid improvement in glucose control and the risk of worsening diabetic retinopathy. While the increased risk is temporary and often manageable with current treatment protocols, this paradox warrants increased attention from ophthalmologists.

    To learn more, researchers used the IRIS® Registry (Intelligent Research in Sight) to evauate data from more than 48,000 adults with type 2 diabetes treated with injectable semaglutide. Subjects were between 51 and 75 years old and were treated between 2013 and 2021.

    After two years of treatment:

    • Only 2.2 percent of eyes with no or background diabetic retinopathy experienced a worsening of diabetic retinopathy.
    • In eyes with early-stage disease (mild or moderate nonproliferative diabetic retinopathy), 3.5 percent of eyes showed a worsening of diabetic retinopathy.
    • Nearly 60 percent of eyes with advanced disease (severe nonproliferative or proliferative diabetic retinopathy) experienced an improvement in their diabetic retinopathy.

    Dr. Haq says that although results are promising for people with diabetes hoping to use semaglutide for weight loss and other health benefits, more research is definitely needed.

    “This study has significant limitations including its retrospective observational design, lack of a control group, and a lack of pre- and post-initiation of semaglutide comparisons,” Dr. Haq said. “In particular, the impact of semaglutide initiation on short- and long-term outcomes in potentially high-risk patients, such as those with severe non-proliferative or proliferative diabetic retinopathy, should be investigated further. Ultimately, diabetic patients who are considering semaglutide should consult with their primary and eye care providers regarding their individual situation.”

    Researchers are working to learn more about the long-term effects of semaglutide on diabetic retinopathy in people with type 2 diabetes. A prospective clinical trial called FOCUS will evaluate the long-term effects of semaglutide in addition to diabetes medication on diabetic retinopathy. The study is expected to conclude in February 2027.

    About the American Academy of Ophthalmology

    The American Academy of Ophthalmology is the world’s largest association of eye physicians and surgeons. A global community of 32,000 medical doctors, we protect sight and empower lives by setting the standards for ophthalmic education and advocating for our patients and the public. We innovate and support research to advance our profession and to ensure the delivery of the highest-quality eye care. Our EyeSmart® program provides the public with the most trusted information about eye health. For more information, visit