By Paul Fitzgerald
Researchers at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies in San Diego, California, have just invented a new kind of diet pill that is a cut above the rest.
The drug, called fexaramine, fools the body into thinking it has actually consumed calories, causing it to burn fat.
Dubbed as the ‘meal-in-a-pill,’ this drug is cutting-edge on every level. Fexaramine will not dissolve into the blood stream like other diet pills. And it has way less side effects as it remains only in the intestines when broken down.
“This pill is like an imaginary meal,” says Ronald Evans, director of Salk’s Gene Expression Laboratory and senior author of the new paper, published in Nature Medicine.
He adds, “It sends out the same signals that normally happen when you eat a lot of food, so the body starts clearing out space to store it. But there are no calories and no change in appetite.”
This scientific breakthrough could not have come at a better time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States report that obesity and diabetes are both causing a massive strain on the nation’s health care system. According to the CDC, more than a third of the U.S. population is overweight and nearly 30 million people suffer from diabetes.
The Salk research team, under the guidance and leadership of Evans, has spent the last 20 years analyzing the faresoid X receptor (FXR). According to the institution’s website, “FXR is a protein that plays a role in how the body releases bile acids from the liver, digests food and stores fats and sugars. The human body turns on FXR at the beginning of a meal, Evans and others have shown, to prepare for an influx of food. FXR not only triggers the release of bile acids for digestion, but also changes blood sugar levels and causes the body to burn some fats in preparation for the incoming meal.”
The institution’s website further reports that, “pharmaceutical companies aiming to treat obesity, diabetes, liver disease and other metabolic conditions have developed systemic drugs that activate FXR, turning on many pathways that FXR controls. But these drugs affect several organs and come with side effects. Evans wondered whether switching on FXR only in the intestines–rather than the intestines, liver, kidneys and adrenal glands all at once–might have a different outcome.”
“When you eat, you have to quickly activate a series of responses all throughout the body,” says Evans. “And the reality is that the very first responder for all this is the intestine.”
Evans and his team produced the fexaramine compound by leaving out the drug scaffold that most pharmaceutical companies use when targeting FXR.
“It turns out that when we administer this orally, it only acts in the gut,” says Michael Downes, a senior staff scientist at Salk and co-corresponding author of the new work.
“Giving one such drug in a daily pill form that only reaches the intestines–without transporting into the bloodstream that would carry the drug throughout the body–not only curtails side effects but also made the compound better at stopping weight gain,” he adds.
The research team at Salk tested out the pill on mice during a five-week period and they discovered that they stopped gaining weight, lost fat, and had lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Their comparison was done with mice using the pill with those untreated.
Since Fexaramine targets the intestines, it is expected to have better results than drugs that activate FXR throughout the body via the blood stream.
“The body’s response to a meal is like a relay race, and if you tell all the runners to go at the same time, you’ll never pass the baton,” says Evans. “We’ve learned how to trigger the first runner so that the rest of the events happen in a natural order.”
The drug will soon be tested during human clinical trials that are expected to begin later this year or early 2016.
Still, while this pill is expected to help people lose weight, dramatic lifestyle changes will also be required under the guidance of doctors and even weight and nutrition specialists.