A pill might one day achieve the same calorie-burning effects that vigorous exercise does. It's possible, according to Ronald M. Evans, a scientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego who has developed a potential weight-loss drug that revved up cellular metabolism in mice.

Exciting Research

In the study, the drug protected the mice who were on high-fat and high-caloric diets and prevented them from gaining weight," he said. "We're very excited to see if the drug will work for people, too."

At stake is a medical solution for people who want to lose weight but who either don't diet and exercise properly or who just can't lose enough. Diet pills have existed for decades, but they have significant side effects and aren't always effective.

One possible solution is to increase the body's metabolism, the process that turns food into energy. That's where Evans's drug enters the picture.

How It Works

The drug uses chemicals to turn on a genetic switch in the body known as PPAR-d.

When given the drug in the form of a liquid or powder, the bodies of mice appear to act as if they are exercising even when they aren't, causing their metabolism to speed up, Evans explained. "You then have lower fatty acid levels in the blood, lower triglyceride levels and lower sugar levels," he said. "They all appear to be linked."

Mice who received the drug were also able to exercise twice as long, turning into what researchers call "marathon mice."

Could It Work On Humans?

According to Evans, the drug could indeed become a "fat pill," although "anything like this would be more effective if it were part of a regimen of a healthy diet and exercise. If you only took the drug, weight loss will always be somewhat of a challenge."

Several companies are testing drugs that target the genetic switch in people, Evans said.

While an effective weight-loss pill is the "holy grail" of obesity research, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious about the new finding, said Leah Whigham, a research scientist who studies nutrition at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

"The most obvious caution is that this research was conducted on mice, which are very different from humans and have different energy expenditure mechanisms. It remains to be seen if this research can translate into something useful for humans," she said.

There is also less diversity in mice than in humans. "Something that works in all mice of a given strain might not be as effective across a population of humans who have different genetic, ethnic, cultural and environmental backgrounds," she explained.

Still, Whigham said, "that doesn't mean this research isn't very exciting. It is just very preliminary at this point.

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