WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Exercise has undisputed benefits when it comes to helping us live longer, healthier lives but for those people with chronic conditions, or for those who can’t exercise, a medical alternative would dramatically change their lives for the better.
Firstly, let me say this about pills and exercise – as a fully qualified personal trainer, and, maybe more specifically, as someone who’s writing this article after completing seventy laps in the pool (yes, I felt sick after it) I’ve seen and read about my fair share of pills that promise weight loss and a wide variety of other health benefits.
However, bearing in mind that we are all living in an age where machines are increasingly becoming more “intelligent” than humans, where scientists are openly talking about creating a fully synthetic human, and at a time when a single technology appears as though it holds the key to upending every industry on the planet with just a flick of its algorithmic wrist the question isn’t will we ever see a breakthrough like the one promised, it’s when.
Australia and their universities are well known for their medical breakthroughs in the field of sports and science so maybe this is at least the beginning, so for that reason I’m going to give this particular breakthrough some air time.
Scientists at Melbourne’s Deakin University have announced in the international journal Cell Reports that they have found a drug that has “exercise like effects” on muscle and that improves metabolic health. While the drug apparently doesn’t replicate all aspects of exercise, it targets a specific physiological process which helps burn fat.
“It activates the same fat burning pathways that are activated during exercise,” said associate Professor Sean McGee, “the overweight mice the drug was tested on burned the fat that causes cardiovascular disease, meaning we no longer had heart disease in the fat mice.”
“When we gave the drug to mice acutely [in a single dose] we got all the genes that are normally turned on in exercise turned on in muscle. When we give the drug to mice chronically, over a period of about a month they become much more effective at running on a treadmill, its almost like they’ve been exercise training.”
McGee said their discovery opens up the possibility of much needed treatments for people who suffer from cardiovascular disease, particularly those with diabetes and obesity.
“Heart disease is still the biggest killer of people with diabetes and obesity, and there’s little in the way of treatment,” he said, “what we have done is identify a drug that makes the body respond as if it has exercised, with all the fat burning and cardiovascular benefits, which opens up exciting possibilities for future treatments.”
One of the benefits of exercise is that it helps the body burns more lipid – or fats – by turning on the genes in the muscles that control fat metabolism. The scientists found that during their research, that one specific protein keeps these genes turned off, however during exercise the genes are turned on and through tests on mice, and by genetically manipulating that specific protein, the researchers noticed that the muscles looked like they had been exercising and that metabolism was increased in the muscle.
So does this mean the pill, which the university believe will be available in the next 5 to 10 years mean we can hang up our running shoes, or our swimming trunks, for good? Not quite.
“There are benefits you don’t get from this drug when it comes to exercise,” McGee said, “where this might be used is on patients at risk from cardiovascular disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes where there is no real treatment. It might be used as a substitute for exercise in the elderly, or as an aid to get people into an exercise program,” he said.
“But what we really don’t see is this drug providing an alternative for those people who just can’t be bothered exercising.”
And that’s because there is a downside to the drug – despite the great cardiovascular benefits, it didn’t cause any weight loss in the mice, because they actually ate more food than when they didn’t take the pill.
“Even though they burnt more fat, the total energy expenditure was higher which meant that the mice ate more,” Prof McGee said, “while they are metabolically healthy, the mice actually tended to eat a little bit more which isn’t really surprising because we know that exercise alone is not that effective at making you lose weight, which is more associated with dietary changes.”
This isn’t the first time researchers have tried to replicate all the proven benefits of physical activity on human health with a single drug.
In a study published in the same journal as the Deakin research, Cell Metabolism, last year, scientists at the University of Sydney shared details of what they described as a “breakthrough” in deconstructing what happens inside a human body during exercise. During that study an international team led by researchers at the University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre mapped the changes that occur to muscles as a result of exercise and they discovered there were about 1,000 different changes in our muscles that occur on a molecular level during even a short burst of exercise, which suggest that to design a drug to do all these things would be no simple feat.
Back to the pool it is then.