We’re all familiar with those wonder diet pills or supplements we see advertised, making bold promises about life-changing weight loss. But the sad truth is they’re generally a massive waste of money as the vast majority are either unproven or unsafe. While we’re still far from wonder diet pills, new research suggests that scientists might be edging closer to making a drug that could one day help obese people who struggle to lose weight, as a compound has been developed which acts like an “imaginary meal.”
The drug tricks the body into thinking it has eaten, which in turn causes it to start burning fat. While it’s currently too early to tell whether this could be used as a viable treatment for obesity, studies in mice have turned out promising results so far. Not only was the compound found to be well-tolerated with few unwanted side effects, but it also stopped weight gain through overeating, lowered cholesterol and controlled blood sugar levels.
The new drug, called fexaramine, works by mimicking the physiological processes that occur in the body after calories are consumed. “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,” senior study author Ronald Evans said in a news release. “But there are no calories and no change in appetite.”
It does this by activating a widely distributed protein called the farensoid X receptor (FXR), which gets switched on at the beginning of a meal. Once activated, this receptor initiates a cascade of events that prepare the body for the incoming meal, including triggering the release of bile acids for digestion, controlling blood sugar levels and causing some fats to be burned.
Scientists have targeted this receptor before, but the drugs acted systemically on numerous different organs and thus came with unwanted side effects. The new compound developed by Salk researchers, however, only acts on FXR in the intestines. This not only reduced the side effects, but it also made the compound significantly more effective at preventing weight gain compared with previous drugs.
As described in Nature Medicine, the research team administered the compound orally to obese mice on a high fat diet for five weeks. These mice stopped gaining weight, lost fat and had lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels than control mice. Furthermore, the treated mice experienced a slight rise in body temperature, suggesting that their metabolism had increased, and some of their white fat turned into energy-burning brown fat.
While the drug has only been tested in mice so far, the researchers are hopeful that one day, the compound could serve as an alternative to gastric bypass surgery for extremely obese individuals that have failed to lose weight through diet and exercise. However, the drug needs to be approved for larger animal studies first, and only if these are successful can it be tested on humans, which could take several years. But even if it does get approval for use in humans, as with weight-loss surgery, the drug would need to accompany diet and lifestyle changes.