Medications like Ozempic may help reduce the risk of colon cancer in people with diabetes, new research suggests

a close up of a person using an injector pen for medication to treat diabetes, applying the pen to their leg
A new study looked at whether different diabetes drugs may help prevent colon cancer, and found GLP-1 medications like semaglutide may significantly reduce the risk.CR/Getty Images
  • GLP-1 medications, used for weight loss and diabetes, may also help prevent colon cancer.

  • Research finds these drugs reduce colon cancer risk more than other diabetes medications.

  • Colon cancer is a leading cause of cancer deaths, and diagnoses are on the rise in younger people.

Groundbreaking medications like semaglutide are not only game-changers for weight loss and diabetes treatment — they're part of a group of drugs that could stave off other health issues such as colon cancer, new research suggests.

Semaglutide, sold under the brand names Wegovy and Ozempic, is a type of medication known as a GLP-1 receptor agonist. Drugs in this category are often used to manage blood sugar and control appetite, and work by acting on a hormone in the body which helps regulate insulin. The newest class of these drugs are once-weekly injections, compared to daily injections for older variations like liraglutide (brand name Saxenda).

Researchers from the Case Western Reserve University wanted to see how this class of drugs might play a role in preventing colon cancer compared to other diabetes drugs, since the diseases can go hand in hand.

They looked at data from more than 1 million patients with type 2 diabetes who were prescribed medication to treat it for the first time between 2005 and 2019. The researchers then compared the rates of colon cancer diagnosis between patients on different drugs over 15 years of follow up.

Patients on GLP-1 medications had a 44% lower risk of developing colon cancer compared to patients on insulin, according to the findings, published December 7 in JAMA Oncology. And participants had a 25% lower risk of colon cancer on GLP-1 drugs than on metformin, a popular diabetes drug also being studies as an anti-aging tool.

A higher weight and body mass index can be a risk factor for colon cancer, so the weight management benefits of GLP-1 drugs may partially explain how they help reduce the risk of cancer, according to the researchers. However, they also found some benefit in patients who didn't have weight-related health concerns.

The results are promising because colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths, and evidence suggests diagnoses are on the rise, especially among younger people.

Research is still revealing the potential benefits, and risks, of GLP-1 medications

A growing number of study have focused how GLP-1 medications may affect our health over time.

Other recent research suggests the medications may also reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and fatal cardiovascular disease, major causes of early death in the US.

And pharmaceutical companies are continuing to explore new possibilities within this class of drugs.

A medication called tirzepatide was approved for diabetes treatment in 2022 under the brand named Mounjaro. As of November 8, it has also been FDA-approved for weight loss, sold as Zepbound.

Other formulations of GLP-1 drugs, including oral versions of the medications, are still in clinical trials or other stages of research.

While these drugs are considered to be safe, more studies are pending about their possible long-term effects, and they commonly have short-term side effects like nausea, constipation, or diarrhea.

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