Scientists in the USA believe they may be able to develop a pill that provides the same benefits gained from exercise without the need to put in the work.
The pill would contain an experimental drug called GW501516, and mouse-based studies suggest it could have the potential to help a lot of people who need to lose weight, but cannot exercise because of health restrictions.
GW501516 was the result of collaboration between scientists from Ligand Pharmaceuticals and GlaxoSmithKline and it was originally hoped the drug may help people suffering from cardiovascular diseases.
Unfortunately, studies showed it was capable of causing nasty side effects, so the project was dropped in 2007.
Despite the fact that its use was known to present several risks, scientists continued to explore its value in other areas and discovered the drug was good for enhancing physical performance. The caused GW501516 to become a popular item on the black market, but it's easy to test for its presence, and any athlete discovered using it could find they are banned from competing in competitions.
Method of Research
Researchers at the Salk Institute in California were interesting in discovering how physical endurance works on a molecular level. They hoped to isolate the processes involved and use the knowledge to develop an “exercise pill”.
The mice the researchers selected for the study were used to living sedentary lives and did not get much exercise. When they were set to work in a treadmill they were unable to continue running for longer than 2 hours 40 minutes.
Treatment with the drug enabled them keep running for 4 hours 30 minutes. That's a 70% improvement and it was big news when the results of the study were published in the scientific journal, Cell Metabolism (May 2nd, 2017).
Why the Link Between Endurance and Exercise is Important
GW501516 appears to increase the activity of a gene called PPARD. It's associated with running long distances. PPARD also appears to be capable of effecting insulin sensitivity and helping people to avoid weight gain.
According to one of the researchers, Dr Weiwei Fan, exercise triggers increased PPARD activity and provides many of the benefits associated with exercise. He says GW501516 can trigger PPARD without the need for exercise. “It means you can improve endurance to an equivalent level to someone in training without the physical effort,” Fan explained.
As levels of physical fitness improve, the muscles begin to start burning less sugar for energy and start burning fat instead. Fan and the rest of the team at the Salk Institute speculate PPARD may be involved in this process too.
Pros and Cons of an “Exercise Pill”
Is a Pill That Replaces Exercise Really a Good Idea?
Many people are overweight, but fail to get a level of exercise that is sufficient to help them start to burn their stores of fat. Truck drivers and office workers are two examples. People with heart problems are another, and many elderly people are too infirm to embark on an exercise regimen. Bearing in mind the health risks obesity poses, a pill that offers the benefits of exercise could have a lot to offer. However, medical experts have commented GW501516 may not be a good choice.
Pharmacologist, Louise MacKenzie (University of Hertfordshire, England) is familiar with the drug and, although she admits small dose may offer benefits that are similar to a “wonder drug”, she points out higher doses can be extremely dangerous. “It goes from being remarkably healthy to being the complete opposite,” Mackenzie said. “There is no in-between.”
Professor Ali Tavassoli (Southampton University, England) also expressed doubts about GW501516. “Someone with obesity or diabetes could be taking a pill for 40 or 50 years,” Tavassoli stated. “What happens when you take this kind of drug for that long? I can’t see these things getting regulatory approval.”
However, despite her reservations, MacKenzie still feels the drug is a good starting point. “I can definitely see a future where the problems are solved,” she said. “You just need to have enough clever scientists working on them.”