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New Class of Diabetes Drug can Lead to Higher Risk of Pancreas Damage: Study

Update Date: Feb 26, 2013 05:58 AM EST

People taking the newer drugs for diabetes are at two times higher risk of developing pancreatitis than people taking older drugs to control blood sugar levels, according to a new study.

The new class of diabetes drugs called glucagon-like peptide-1-based therapies (GLP-1) was found to have increased the chances of a person developing lesions and inflammation in the pancreas. The drugs studied were sitagliptin and exenatide - generic names for the drugs sold under the brand names Januvia (sold by Merck) and Byetta (sold by Bristol-Mayers).

Pancreatitis is an inflammation of the pancreas, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC). The pancreas is a large gland that secretes digestive juices.

Januvia on its homepage warns people using the drug about risks of pancreatitis associated with the drug and recommends people to stop medication if they have pain in the abdomen that doesn't subside.

The present study was conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins who say that although the risk of pancreatitis with the use of GLP-1 was known from previous animal studies, it is the present study that assesses the total risk of developing pancreatitis involved in using the drug. Researchers even accounted for other factors that increase the risk of pancreas damage like alcohol use, obesity and gallstones.

The study was based on data obtained from seven BlueCross BlueShield health insurance plans which included 1,269 people who had diabetes and had taken at least one drug for the condition. Researchers then compared the risk of people who were taking the drugs for controlling sugar levels to those people who had diabetes but weren't on any medication.

Study analysis showed that people taking GLP-1 medicines were about twice as likely to suffer from pancreatitis and be hospitalized for the condition within 2 months as people who had taken different drugs.

"These agents are used by millions of Americans with diabetes. These new diabetes drugs are very effective in lowering blood glucose. However, important safety findings may not have been fully explored and some side effects such as acute pancreatitis don't appear until widespread use after approval," says study leader Sonal Singh, M.D., an assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, according to a news release.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.     

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