Health and Healthcare Systems

Scientists have created a drug that mimicks some of the health benefits of exercise

A woman jogs along the Charles River on an early spring evening in Boston, Massachusetts April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder  (UNITED STATES - Tags: SOCIETY ENVIRONMENT) - RTR3JV6Z

Scientists have found that overweight mice who were given this drug no longer showed signs of cardiovascular disease once given this particular drug. Image: REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Olivia Goldhill
Weekend Writer, Quartz
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Researchers have made the breakthrough of couch potatoes’ dreams with a new drug that mimics some of the most important effects of exercise. Scientists from Deakin University in Melbourne published their findings in Cell Reports earlier this week, showing that overweight mice who were given the drug no longer showed signs of cardiovascular disease.

The biologists began their research almost a decade ago, says Sean McGee, associate professor of medical biology at the school, with the specific goal of replicating the effects of exercise. They began by examining the molecular response to exercise in muscle. The genes that control for lipid metabolism turn on during exercise, which causes the body to burn the fat that contributes to heart disease. McGee and his team found the protein that keeps these genes turned off most of the time, and were able to genetically manipulate it in order to turn on the fat-burning genes.

Testing on mice showed that, in burning the fats, the drug effectively prevented heart disease in obese mice. The researchers are now redesigning the drug structure to make it more potent, specific—and effective for humans. Though testing has thus far been limiting to mice, they hope to have it available for human use in five- to 10 years.

Though the drug could have huge health benefits for people with obesity and type-2 diabetes, McGee notes that it does not replicate all the benefits of exercise. For example, it doesn’t induce the same increase in endorphins.

And mice who were given the drug did not lose weight. “Although it increases energy expenditure and fat burning, mice treated with the drug also ate a little bit more, meaning they remained weight stable,” says McGee.

Last year, scientists at the University of Sydney created a blueprint of the molecular effects of exercise, with the long-term goal of creating a drug that completely replicates the effects of exercise. Rather than rewarding an inactive lifestyle, scientists hope that the drugs could have serious health benefits for the elderly, or those who struggle to do physical exercise.

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