Common Diabetes Drugs May Carry Risk, Study Suggests

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By: Brenda Neugent

When it comes to the treatment of type 2 diabetes, metformin may be a safer choice than sulfonylureas, according to the results of a new study.

In the study, conducted in Great Britain, people who used sulfonylureas as an initial way to control their blood glucose levels had a higher risk of death than those taking metformin.

Sulfonylureas encourage increased production of insulin by the pancreas, while metformin suppresses the production of blood glucose in the liver.

The study focused on thousands of people with type 2 diabetes in the United Kingdom who began firs-line treatments to lower blood sugar levels between 2000 and 2012. Participants were followed for an average of three years.

Data showed that those who took sulfonylureas as that first-line treatment were 58 percent more likely to die from any cause than those who took metformin alone.

The results were presented earlier this year at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Barcelona, Spain.

Experts say the study could have an impact on how type 2 diabetes is treated in the future.

The findings “will change the practice of glucose-lowering therapy,” said Dr. Spyros Mezitis, an endocrinologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, in an interview with U.S. News and World Reports.

But he added that “more study is needed to confirm this data,” and use of the alternative drug, metformin, is not always the answer. “Metformin and other oral hypoglycemic agents have their drawbacks, and probably we will see earlier use of insulin in type 2 diabetics,” Mezitis said.

Other experts suggested that the study results were not totally unexpected, since sulfonylureas and metformin fight diabetes in different ways.

The study was funded by the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, which manufactures the drug metformin under the brand name Glucophage.

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