TUESDAY, June 14, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- The blood sugar-lowering drug Victoza (liraglutide) cuts the risk of heart attack and stroke in type 2 diabetes patients, a new study finds.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among people with type 2 diabetes, the researchers noted.
The study was funded by the drug's maker, Novo Nordisk, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health. It included more than 9,300 adults from 32 countries who have type 2 diabetes and a high risk of heart disease.
About half took Victoza, while the other half took an inactive placebo. Both groups also took other medications for health problems, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the study authors said.
Tracking patients for three years, the researchers found that compared with patients in the placebo group, people who took Victoza had a 13 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke. They also had a 22 percent lower risk of death from heart disease; a 15 percent lower risk of death from any cause; and a 22 percent lower risk of new evidence of advanced kidney disease.
Some patients did discontinue the drug due to "gastrointestinal events," according to the report.
The study was presented June 13 at the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting, in New Orleans. It was also published simultaneously in the New England Journal of Medicine.
"I've been excited about liraglutide for a long time because I think it's unique," said study senior author Dr. John Buse. He directs the Diabetes Care Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
"This is the first diabetes drug that has shown across-the-board benefits for cardiovascular diseases, and this suggests it plays a role in treating atherosclerosis [hardening of the arteries], which is what leads to heart attacks and strokes," Buse said in a university news release.
One diabetes expert called the study "encouraging."
Victoza "is a relatively new medication, given by daily injection," said Dr. Allison Reiss, who runs the inflammation laboratory at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y.
Still, the long-term effectiveness of the drug is unknown, Reiss added. "It will be important to follow these patients over the next few years to see whether [Victoza] benefits continue and to investigate how it is working," she said.
The researchers explained that Victoza is from a newer class of diabetes drugs known as GLP-1 agonists. These medications work in the pancreas to cut the production of an anti-insulin hormone called glucagon. The drugs boost insulin production and help control blood sugar levels.
As a secondary mechanism, Victoza also works on the brain to help lower appetite and boost feelings of "fullness" when eating, Buse's team explained.
Reiss noted that because of this activity, Victoza can help spur weight loss -- and that might be the prime factor driving the improvements in heart health.
Dr. Gerald Bernstein coordinates the Friedman Diabetes Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He said that Victoza -- and other drugs in its class -- are being increasingly used, so "decreased cardiovascular risk is an important finding."
Type 2 diabetes affects more than 29 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases has more about diabetes.