Fenfluramine repurposing from weight loss to epilepsy: What we do and do not know

Reem Odi, Roberto William Invernizzi, Tamar Gallily, Meir Bialer, Emilio Perucca

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


In 2020, racemic-fenfluramine was approved in the U.S. and Europe for the treatment of seizures associated with Dravet syndrome, through a restricted/controlled access program aimed at minimizing safety risks. Fenfluramine had been used extensively in the past as an appetite suppressant, but it was withdrawn from the market in 1997 when it was found to cause cardiac valvulopathy. Available evidence indicates that appetite suppression and cardiac valvulopathy are mediated by different serotonergic mechanisms. In particular, appetite suppression can be ascribed mainly to the enantiomers d-fenfluramine and d-norfenfluramine, the primary metabolite of d-fenfluramine, whereas cardiac valvulopathy can be ascribed mainly to d-norfenfluramine. Because of early observations of markedly improved seizure control in some forms of epilepsy, fenfluramine remained available in Belgium through a Royal Decree after 1997 for use in a clinical trial in patients with Dravet syndrome at average dosages lower than those generally prescribed for appetite suppression. More recently, double-blind placebo-controlled trials established its efficacy in the treatment of convulsive seizures associated with Dravet syndrome and of drop seizures associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, at doses up to 0.7 mg/kg/day (maximum 26 mg/day). Although no cardiovascular toxicity has been associated with the use of fenfluramine in epilepsy, the number of patients exposed to date has been limited and only few patients had duration of exposure longer than 3 years. This article analyzes available evidence on the mechanisms involved in fenfluramine-induced appetite suppression, antiseizure effects and cardiovascular toxicity. Despite evidence that stimulation of 5-HT2B receptors (the main mechanism leading to cardiac valvulopathy) is not required for antiseizure activity, there are many critical gaps in understanding fenfluramine's properties which are relevant to its use in epilepsy. Particular emphasis is placed on the remarkable lack of publicly accessible information about the comparative activity of the individual enantiomers of fenfluramine and norfenfluramine in experimental models of seizures and epilepsy, and on receptors systems considered to be involved in antiseizure effects. Preliminary data suggest that l-fenfluramine retains prominent antiseizure effects in a genetic zebrafish model of Dravet syndrome. If these findings are confirmed and extended to other seizure/epilepsy models, there would be an incentive for a chiral switch from racemic-fenfluramine to l-fenfluramine, which could minimize the risk of cardiovascular toxicity and reduce the incidence of adverse effects such as loss of appetite and weight loss.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107866
JournalPharmacology and Therapeutics
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2021


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