Science is one step closer to creating exercise in a pill

Science is one step closer to creating exercise in a pill


Text: Noelle Faulkner

Could this be the fitness breakthrough our TV binge-watching lazy butts have been waiting for?

This week in hopeful news we can use, a study has been published  in Cell Metabolism that shows scientists are getting closer and closer to mimicking the beneficial effects of exercise in pill form and boosting athletic endurance by 70 per cent. Sounds too good to be true? Listen and learn...

Building on earlier findings that "identified a gene pathway triggered by running", scientists at Salk Institute have discovered how to switch the pathway on in sedentary mice with a chemical compound and actually imitating exercise and its benefits - including fat burning and stamina. Yep - like Limitless for exercise, also known as "how you feel after watching The Conjuring".

According to Science Daily, the findings have been instrumental in learning more about aerobic endurance, heart conditions, type 2 diabetes and pulmonary disease . The aim of the findings is to not just be a "skinny pill" (though, obviously that would be a bonus), but to also hope to help those suffering these kinds of conditions and diseases. "It's well-known that people can improve their aerobic endurance through training,"  senior author Ronald Evans, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and holder of Salk's March of Dimes Chair in Molecular and Developmental Biology told Science Daily. "The question for us was: how does endurance work? And if we really understand the science, can we replace training with a drug?" Repeat: Can we replace training with a drug?

Science is one step closer to creating exercise in a pill (фото 1)

The study itself is incredibly fascinating, looking at the meaning of endurance. For example, why, when people become more fit, do their muscles start to burn fat instead of glucose/carbohydrates? This is getting technical, but as the science publication reports, previous work by the Evans lab found that mice genetically engineered to have a gene called PPARD permanently activated, became long-distance runners who were resistant to weight gain and highly responsive to insulin. i.e. They were genetically engineered to be fit. While this chemical compound (called GW1516 , aka GW) activated the same gene, mimicking this effect. However, the Evans lab said it did not increase endurance, and could not replace exercise.  

But wait! Building off these findings, the Salk Institute gave the mice a higher dose of GW over a longer period of time, which then found that the mice on the compound could run for 70 per cent longer than those who weren't - with exhaustion setting in when super low blood sugar set in.  The found that by opening the aforementioned PPARD pathway (you still with me here?) prevented sugar from being a muscle energy source (possibly saving the sugar for the brain).

As most of us who train know, it's harder to burn fat than it is to burn sugar/carbs - your body will always reach for the sugar first -that is, unless it has reason. And maintaining brain function is a key one, hence why cutting any form of glucose will help you lose weight but also make you brain dead  AF. "This study suggests that burning fat is less a driver of endurance than a compensatory mechanism to conserve glucose," Michael Downes, a Salk senior scientist and co-senior author of the paper says. "PPARD is suppressing all the points that are involved in sugar metabolism in the muscle so glucose can be redirected to the brain, thereby preserving brain function."

Aside from this increased endurance, the mice that took the compound did not physically show signs of being mega-fit (bummer, I know) but they were resistant to weight gain and more responsive to insulin. "Exercise activates PPARD, but we're showing that you can do the same thing without mechanical training. It means you can improve endurance to the equivalent level as someone in training, without all of the physical effort," said  Weiwei Fan, a Salk research associate and the paper's first author.

While there's no real shortcut to losing weight, even if such a pill could have you running a marathon without ever training, once you've dropped it, it could make maintenance much easier.  Obviously all this has made pharmaceutical companies see dollar signs and there has been much interest in human trials.  

Forget your lazy butt for one second and take a moment to consider what this kind of breakthrough could have on sport as we know it (not to mention how much the drug would cost and if it would be handed out to the military first, that's a whole other topic)... but could this lead the way to superhuman athletes? For anyone wanting to pursue a sport without access to the drug, it would be devastating and soon, the Olympics would just be another pay-to-play event. Ah, the ethics of mad science...

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