Exercise in a pill: New drug tricks the body into losing weight

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Could reaching your ideal weight be as easy as popping a pill? It may sound like fantasy, but researchers from the University of Florida suggest modern science isn’t so far off from such a fitness feat after all. Scientists say they have created a new compound that helps users lose weight by mimicking exercise.

Tested on a collection of obese mice, the compound helped the rodents lose their excess weight by “convincing” their muscles that they had been exercising more than they really were in reality — boosting their metabolisms. Even better, the new compound also appears to boost endurance, helping the mice run close to 50 percent further than they had been capable of before — all without any actual physical activity.

Study authors explain the new compound belongs to a class known as “exercise mimetics,” which essentially work to provide some of the benefits of exercise without actually breaking a sweat. While this new treatment is still very much in the early stages of development, researchers say one day people could user this drug as a means of treating numerous diseases including diabetes, obesity, and age-related muscle loss.

On a related note, these findings come at a time when drugs like Ozempic are providing further breakthroughs in reducing appetite, which subsequently helps address metabolic diseases.

However, this newest compound, called SLU-PP-332 isn’t believed to impact appetite or food intake whatsoever. The drug works by boosting a natural metabolic pathway in the body that usually responds to exercise. In less scientific terms, study authors liken the newly developed compound to a drug that makes the body act like it is training for a marathon, leading to increased energy expenditure and faster metabolism of fat across the entire body.

“This compound is basically telling skeletal muscle to make the same changes you see during endurance training,” says Thomas Burris, a professor of pharmacy at UF who led the recent research into the new drug, in a media release.

“When you treat mice with the drug, you can see that their whole body metabolism turns to using fatty acids, which is very similar to what people use when they are fasting or exercising,” Burris adds. “And the animals start losing weight.”

Woman stepping on scale, checking weight loss or weight gain
Woman stepping on scale (© Siam – stock.adobe.com)

Prof. Burris worked in collaboration with researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and St. Louis University on this project. The new compound works by targeting a specific group of proteins in the body called ERRs which are believed to activate some of the most important metabolic pathways in key energy-using tissues (muscles, heart, brain). ERRs are more active when we exercise, but have proven very difficult to artificially activate with drugs.

A prior study published earlier this year by the team at UF reported the successful design of SLU-PP-332 to boost the activity of ERRs. At that time, researchers also reported observing that the compound allowed normal-weight mice to run 70 percent longer and 45 percent further than other control rodents.

This newest report encompassed a series of tests involving the compound and obese mice. Treating obese mice twice a day for a month led to them gaining 10 times less fat than untreated mice, as well as losing 12 percent of their body weight. Importantly, the mice kept eating the same amount of food and didn’t change their exercise habits.

“They use more energy just living,” Prof. Burris notes.

Additional research set to be published by the Burris lab describes collected evidence indicating the compound can also treat heart failure (at least in mice) via the strengthening of the heart muscle.

Thus far, researchers have not seen severe side-effects after taking the compound. Moving forward, the next step toward developing SLU-PP-332 into a drug candidate will be to refine its structure. Ideally, researchers speculate that may mean making it available as a pill as opposed to an injection. From there, the compound should be tested for side-effects across additional animal models before any human trials take place.

While other exercise mimetics have been tested, none have actually made it to market. This is partially due to the fact that it takes many years to develop a new drug. Specifically targeting obesity with a drug has historically proven to be a very difficult feat, mostly because obesity in general is a complex condition. That is, until diabetes drugs like Ozempic, Wegovy, and Mounjaro arrived on the scene, with patients also reporting weight loss. That development sparked major interest, research, and funding focused on drugs that may be able to address metabolic diseases via different biological pathways.

All in all, Prof. Burris speculates the best prospects for the new drug may be in regards to maintaining muscle mass during weight loss. Typically, when someone loses excess weight, it can also threaten lean muscle mass. Similarly, the new drug may prove helpful for older adults; as the body ages, it naturally responds less strongly to exercise. Still, much more research is needed to entirely understand the drug’s full potential.

“This may be able to keep people healthier as they age,” Prof. Burris concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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