New Drug Shows Promise in Reducing Symptoms of Sleep Apnea Through Weight Loss

Eli Lilly & Co.’s weight-loss drug Zepbound improved breathing problems in highly anticipated studies that may convince more insurers to cover the $1,000-a-month treatment.

In two late-stage trials of patients with obstructive sleep apnea, a condition closely linked to obesity, Zepbound reduced the number of times breathing slowed or stopped during sleep by up to 63% from the baseline, Lilly said in a statement Wednesday. The result topped Jefferies analysts’ expectations that the trials would likely show a reduction of about 50% to 55%.

Patients in the 52-week studies also lost up to roughly 20% of their body weight, Lilly said.

Lilly said it plans to share full results from the trials at the American Diabetes Association conference in June. The drug giant plans to submit those results to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other global regulatory agencies beginning mid-year.

An approval for Zepbound to treat sleep apnea could open the door for more patients to access the treatment through insurance. Weight loss drugs like Zepbound aren’t currently covered by Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and some people on long-term disability.

Regulators’ green light would also help Lilly compete with Novo Nordisk A/S, whose own blockbuster weight-loss medication, Wegovy, will now be covered by major health insurers for certain Medicare beneficiaries with heart-related conditions. Novo has said it may study a next-generation weight-loss drug in reducing sleep apnea, but it’s not currently testing whether Ozempic or Wegovy help with the condition.

While there are medications available to help with the drowsiness associated with sleep apnea, Zepbound has “the potential to be the first pharmaceutical treatment for underlying disease,” Jeff Emmick, Lilly’s senior vice president of product development, said in the statement.

Weight loss is known to help alleviate sleep apnea, which impacts more than 23 million American adults living with obesity, according to estimates from the analytics firm Airfinity. If it were to be widely covered by insurers, Zepbound could help prevent up to 5.6 million cases of the sleep disorder by 2030, the firm said.

Still, Airfinity analysts said it was unlikely Zepbound and other GLP-1 drugs would make the sleep disorder disappear completely.

Lilly’s enrolled 469 patients with obesity and sleep apnea, some treated with Zepbound alone and others using breathing devices in conjunction with the drug.

Zepbound led to a greater mean reduction in , or AHI, events per hour in patients using the devices, compared to the group that only got the drug. The index is a measure used to assess the severity of sleep apnea by recording the number of times a person’s breathing shows a restricted or complete block of airflow per hour of sleep.

Patients with sleep apnea typically need to use breathing machines or that help open airways. The machines can be costly, ranging in the hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece. Upkeep, service and replacement parts could average another $330 to $900 each year, to GoodRx.

Zepbound’s approval for sleep apnea would also stand to impact companies that make breathing machines, including ResMed Inc. and Inspire Medical Systems Inc. Weight loss drugs could shrink the market for machines by more than 11% in the next few years, according to Airfinity analysis.