A recent study suggests that people who use the medication semaglutide, sold under the brand names Ozempic, Wegovy, and Rybelsus, may have a higher risk of developing a serious eye disease. Researchers in the United States analyzed data from 17,000 patients over six years and found that those taking these medications to treat type 2 diabetes were four times more likely to be diagnosed with the disease compared to individuals not undergoing this treatment. For those taking semaglutide to treat obesity, the risk of developing the eye disease was seven times higher.

However, the researchers could not prove a direct link between semaglutide and the eye problem, which can lead to vision loss in one eye. They were also unable to explain the reasons behind this increased risk or the differences between the groups. It is essential to note that the number of patients affected by the eye disease was small.

Ozempic is a 1 milligram injection prescribed for type 2 diabetes. Rybelsus comes in 3.7 or 14 mg tablets, also used for diabetes. Wegovy is a 2.4 mg injection used for obesity.

The pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, which manufactures the medication, stated that patient safety is a top priority and highlighted the study’s limitations. Clinical trials show that semaglutide can help obese individuals lose more than 10% of their body weight if accompanied by dietary and lifestyle changes.

The drug’s release generated excitement, especially after celebrities began sharing on social media about sudden weight loss while undergoing treatment. Despite being available by prescription only for individuals with type 2 diabetes (Ozempic and Rybelsus) or obesity (Wegovy), many online establishments sell semaglutide injections with few checks on the purchaser.

As a result, health experts and authorities are concerned about the medication being misused as a “quick fix” for individuals looking to get their “body beach-ready.” All medications have potential side effects. For semaglutide, some of the most common adverse events include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and constipation. Vision problems are listed as one of the most severe potential side effects in the Ozempic and Wegovy leaflets.

The specific condition evaluated in the study is non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy. This condition affects up to 10 in every 100,000 people in the general population, according to researchers from Harvard Medical School in the United States. The problem is believed to be caused by reduced blood flow to the optic nerve, which connects the eyes to the nervous system. Currently, there are no available treatments for this condition.

Joseph Rizzo, the study’s author and a Harvard ophthalmology professor, believes the findings are significant but inconclusive. He acknowledges that future studies are needed to assess these issues in a much larger and more diverse population.

Experts from the Royal College of Ophthalmologists in the United Kingdom recommend informing patients taking semaglutide about the risk of developing eye diseases, even though the probability is small.

Due to the small number of patients affected by the eye disease in the study – who may not have taken the medication as directed, for example – the risk statistics are not accurate. Novo Nordisk argues that the study did not consider whether patients smoked or how long they had diabetes – other factors that can affect vision. The company also pointed out issues with accurately identifying cases of eye diseases among the evaluated patients.

A company spokesperson stated, “Non-arteritic anterior ischemic optic neuropathy is not listed as a known adverse drug reaction for marketed formulations of semaglutide.” “Semaglutide has been studied in large real-world evidence studies and robust clinical development programs,” the spokesperson added.

The medication is also being evaluated in research on its potential positive effects on diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that affects individuals with type 2 diabetes. This study is expected to be completed in 2027.

Graham McGeown, an honorary physiology professor at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, believes, “Given the rapid increase in semaglutide use and its potential licensing for a range of issues beyond obesity and type 2 diabetes, this issue [of eye problems] deserves further study.” “The potential side effects of medications should always be balanced with the likely benefits,” he concludes.