Semaglutide Improves Knee OA Pain, Physical Function

VIENNA — The glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) receptor agonist semaglutide (Wegovy) not only induced weight loss but also improved knee pain in people with knee osteoarthritis (OA) and obesity, according to results from the STEP 9 study reported at the World Congress on Osteoarthritis (OARSI 2024).

From baseline to week 68, the mean change in knee pain assessed using the Western Ontario and McMaster Universities Arthritis Index (WOMAC) pain score was a reduction of 41.7 points for semaglutide and a decrease of 27.5 points for a matching placebo. The estimated treatment difference of 14.1 points between the groups was statistically significant (P < .001).

As for weight loss, this also fell by a significantly greater amount in the people treated with semaglutide vs those given placebo, with respective reductions of 13.7% and 3.2% from baseline, with an estimated 10.5% greater weight loss with semaglutide.

“The interesting thing is whether there’s a specific action of GLP-1 receptor agonists on the joint, not through the weight loss but by itself,” principal study investigator Henning Bliddal, MD, DMSc, told Medscape Medical News ahead of reporting the results at OARSI 2024.

photo of Henning Bliddal
Henning Bliddal, MD, DMSc

Weight loss is “obviously good” because “the knees suffer from the weight. But whether it’s good for the knee or just for the health or the well-being of the person is another matter,” said Bliddal, who is director of the Parker Institute at Bispebjerg Frederiksberg Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Not Approved in OA

Semaglutide and other potentially weight loss-inducing drugs are not currently indicated for use specifically in OA, Tonia Vincent, MBBS, PhD, told Medscape Medical News, and so “I think we have to be very cautious,” she said.

“Weight loss is one of the few things that has been shown to be successful in clinical trials,” said Vincent, who is a professor of musculoskeletal biology and an honorary rheumatologist at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at Oxford University in Oxford, England.

“People always feel better too when they lose weight, so that helps manage pain. So, I’d be very surprised if there isn’t a benefit,” she added.

“I just think we need to know more about the long-term use of these drugs, whether the healthcare system can afford them, and how we would ration them.”

Previous Work

The STEP 9 study is not the first time that Bliddal has investigated the effects of a GLP-1 receptor agonist in people with knee OA, but it is the first to have shown a significant effect on knee pain.

Previously, results from the LOSEIT trial with liraglutide demonstrated that, after an 8-week dietary intervention run-in phase, people who were treated with the GLP-1 receptor agonist lost an average of 2.8 kg in body weight over a period of 1 year, vs a 1.2 kg gain in the placebo group. Knee injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Scores, however, were largely unaffected.

“The study was more or less negative for knee pain because at that time we had to pretreat patients with some kind of weight loss before they were allowed to have the liraglutide,” Bliddal said.

“There’s so many different considerations with diets and the different ways that [dietary modification] is performed, that could be part of the explanation why some people didn’t find the pain relief,” Bliddal suggested.

STEP 9 Study Design

No pre-study dietary intervention was required in the STEP 9 trial, although a reduced-calorie diet and increased physical exercise were used alongside both semaglutide and placebo treatment.

STEP 9 was a multicenter, multinational phase 3 clinical trial that enrolled people if they had a body mass index (BMI) of > 30, had a clinical diagnosis of knee OA with moderate radiographic changes (Kellgren-Lawrence grade of 2-3), and were experiencing knee pain.

In addition to a baseline WOMAC pain score of at least 40 points (where 0 represents no and 100 the worst pain), the participants had to have a WOMAC numerical rating scale (NRS) score of ≥ 3.1.

A total of 407 participants were recruited and randomly allocated, 2:1, to receive once-weekly subcutaneous injections of either semaglutide 2.4 mg or placebo for a total of 68 weeks.

Bliddal presented demographic information only for the study population as a whole, showing that the mean was 56 years, 81.6% were women, 60.9% were White, 11.8% Native American, 7.6% Black, and 19.7% of other ethnic origin.

Moreover, the mean bodyweight at baseline was 108.6 kg, and the mean baseline BMI was 40.3, with 75% of participants having a BMI ≥ 35. The mean waist circumference was 118.7 cm. The mean baseline WOMAC pain score was 70.9.

Other Findings

In addition to the reductions seen in the coprimary endpoints of weight loss and knee pain, the WOMAC physical function score was also reduced from baseline to week 68 to a greater degree in the semaglutide than placebo arm, by a respective 41.5 vs 26.7 points, with a significant estimated treatment difference of −14.9 points.

“The use of pain medication went down as well; you can see the drop was faster in the semaglutide group than the placebo group, and it was maintained throughout the study,” Bliddal said during his presentation. He noted that patients had to temporarily stop taking pain relievers such as acetaminophen 3 days before their pain was assessed.

Additional findings reported in the abstract, but not presented at the meeting, were a significant estimated treatment difference of −1.0 in NRS pain intensity, more people treated with semaglutide than placebo achieving ≥ 5% (87.0% vs 29.2%) or ≥ 10% (70.4% vs 9.2%) weight loss.

“Safety and tolerability with semaglutide were consistent with the global STEP program and the GLP-1 receptor agonist class in general,” Bliddal reported.

Serious adverse events occurred in a respective 10.0% and 8.1% of participants, and adverse events leading to discontinuation were recorded in 6.7% and 3%. Around one third (2.2%) of those leading to discontinuation in the semaglutide arm were gastrointestinal adverse events.

The STEP 9 study was funded by Novo Nordisk. Henning is a principal investigator for the trial and acknowledged that research grants were received from Novo Nordisk to his institution, as well as consulting fees and honoraria. He has also received congress and travel support from Contura. Vincent was not involved in the study and had no relevant conflicts of interest to disclose.

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