Can Weight-Loss Drugs Play A Role In Addiction Treatment?

By Beth Leipholtz 04/27/18

A drug that was originally approved to suppress appetites is now being tested as a possible treatment for cocaine addiction.

a green measuring tape lying beside a pill capsule.

Some scientists think weight-loss drugs could serve a new purpose: treating substance use disorders. 

According to STAT News, scientists think there may be a link and similarities between obesity and substance use disorders. As such, they are looking into certain prescription weight-loss drugs such as Qsymia, Belviq and Contrave. Such medications were expected to do well once released.

However, this wasn’t the case, as both doctors and patients have been hesitant to use them based on some issues with prior weight-loss drugs. 

But a recent article, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, states there may be benefits to viewing the drugs as a form of substance use disorder treatment instead. 

STAT reports that one of the medications being studied is Belviq, also known as lorcaserin. The medication was approved in 2012. But after failing to succeed in the market, its developer, Arena Pharmaceuticals, transferred the drug to a partner, Japan-based Eisai Pharmaceuticals. 

Now, STAT notes, researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse are looking into whether lorcaserin has potential as a therapy for cocaine use. 

Nora Volkow, a doctor and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), spoke to STAT and explained why medications like lorcaserin just might have a place in substance use disorder treatment. 

“There’s lorcaserin, which uses a mechanism that doesn’t involve the dopaminergic system—which is typically linked to addiction—but it actually stimulates the serotonin receptors,” she explained to STAT. “That’s an interesting receptor system that’s been shown to also decrease drug-taking, and to prevent relapse into drug-taking. It’s a drug approved for appetite suppression, and it’s now being tested in cocaine addiction.”

Volkow also expressed that while some medications for substance use disorder do exist, there is nothing for “marijuana addiction, or for methamphetamine, cocaine, or inhalants.”

“I think there’s a great opportunity to develop more targeted interventions for the treatment of addiction,” she said. “There are some good medications for the treatment of heroin addiction and other kinds of addictions, but we could do better.”

Volkow does believe there is a connection between obesity and substance use disorders, and says studying both can be educational and potentially lead to treatments. 

“The concept of recognizing the overlap between these two diseases lets us take advantage of medications that have been used for obesity to treat addiction—but it also lets us use addiction drugs in patients with obesity,” she told STAT. “So you can have bidirectionality, and learn from one another—and maximize the development of treatments for both conditions.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.