One in four diabetes patients could benefit from the first medicine in decades to cut down the death rate among sufferers of the disease, which affects 10 percent of the city’s population.
The new drug treats heart disease alongside diabetes, cutting down the number of cardiovascular deaths among diabetics by 38 per cent.
Dr Lee Ka-fai, a specialist in endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism, welcomed the breakthrough as diabetes patients are up to four times more likely to develop heart disease – their number one life-threatening condition.
The study was presented at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Stockholm last week. “This is the first drug in decades to have proven a positive result in reducing the death rate of diabetes,” Lee said during an interview in the Swedish capital after attending the meeting.
“I believe it is likely to become the first-line medicine that Hong Kong doctors prescribe for diabetes patients in the future, especially for those with cardiovascular problems.”
Dr Chan Wing-bun, another specialist in the same area, estimated that one in four patients with type 2 diabetes would benefit from taking the new medicine.
Around one in 10 people in the city suffer from diabetes, meaning there are about 700,000 patients – a number that is expected to surge to 920,000 by 2030.
Since most diabetics have weight problems, they are more likely to have other conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease, which accounts for 50 percent of deaths among diabetes patients. Conventional treatment controls the blood sugar level among patients, without tackling weight and cardiovascular problems.
But the new drug Empagliflozin – a type of SGLT2 inhibitor that blocks the absorption of glucose by the kidneys – can lead to a lower intake of blood sugar as well as a loss in weight, said lead researcher Dr Bernard Zinman, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.
Over the course of three years, it has been tested on more than 7,000 patients with type 2 diabetes from 42 countries, including a few dozen from Hong Kong.
The results, however, showed that the drug does not work well on patients with a kidney function lower than 30 percent, and it increases the risk of urinary infections among women patients.
Empagliflozin has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States and EU countries for the treatment of adults with type 2 diabetes, and it is seeking the approval of Hong Kong’s department of health.
The estimated cost is around HK$20 per day – which is around 10 times more expensive than the usual treatment offered in public hospitals.
Chan said longer observation was required to conclude the effectiveness of the new drug as the research only lasted for three years. But he believed doctors could consider giving the new drug to patients at high risk of heart disease.