WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Of course ethically there will never be any substitute for real exercise, but new gene therapies are pushing our thinking and could benefit people who can’t exercise.
The current Coronavirus pandemic, Covid-19, now means that over half the world is still in some form of lock down, and frankly let’s face it most of us are getting fatter – there’s also only so much B-List celebs in lycra hot pants touting new HIT and yoga programs that we can take before we all run screaming to the bathroom to wash our eyeballs with soap.
So, wouldn’t it be great if there was some form of pill we could all take to help us get those ripped abs we all crave without having to watch all that awesome jiggly lycra action?
Trying to hack fitness is a multi-billion dollar industry, we’ve all seen at least one ad featuring a purported miracle product that claims it can make people lose weight and look great without even trying, and the last time I talked about this space was a while ago after scientists in Australia made a breakthrough in the field.
From low-effort exercise machines to strange-ingredient diets to fat burning belts and bands, there’s no shortage of attempts to make it easy to be fit.
Now though a gene therapy trial performed on mice may foreshadow yet another way to hack our fitness. In a study done by a team at Washington University in the US mice quickly built muscle mass and reduced obesity after receiving the therapy, even while eating a diet high in fat and not exercising. Just like all of us in lock down. Pizza delivered by drone anyone? The results were published last week in a paper in Science Advances.
The therapy worked by targeted a gene called FST that’s responsible for making a protein called Follistatin. In humans and most other mammals, follistatin helps grow muscle and control metabolism by blocking a protein called myostatin, which acts to restrain muscle growth and ensure muscles don’t get too big.
During their experiments the researchers injected eight week old mice with a virus carrying a healthy FST gene, and over a period of 4 months they observed that the muscle mass of the treated mice more than doubled, as did their strength level. They also experienced reduced damage related to osteoarthritis, less inflammation in their joints, and had healthier hearts and blood vessels than mice that didn’t receive the gene therapy – even though all the mice ate the same high-fat diet and did the same amount of exercise.
Going into the study, the researchers worried the muscle growth catalyzed by the gene therapy could harm the heart, mainly through thickening of the heart’s walls. Surprisingly, though, heart function and cardiovascular health of the treated mice actually improved. In subsequent studies, the team will continue to monitor the treatment’s effect on the heart, as complications could emerge over time.
Talk about a fitness hack – imagine being able to build muscle and maintain a healthy metabolism while lounging on the couch eating pizza. There have been similar studies to replicate the effects of exercise by commandeering the genetic instructions that control the way cells interact with proteins though the development of various “Exercise pills” have successfully mimicked the effects of regular cardiovascular activity in mice, scientists still don’t fully understand how, at a molecular level, exercise has the effects it does on the human body.
This may change in the next couple years though, a National Institutes of Health consortium called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity is in the midst of an in-depth study on the molecular effects of exercise on tissues and organs in 3,000 people.
If the muscle building gene therapy eventually reaches a point where it can be used in humans though the research team isn’t viewing it as a quick-fix health hack. Rather, it would be used to help get people with conditions like muscular dystrophy or severe obesity to a baseline from which they could adopt tried-and-true muscle-building practices like weight lifting or physical therapy.
“In cases of severe obesity or muscle loss, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to lose weight or improve muscle strength through normal exercise and diet,” said Farshid Guilak, orthopedic surgery professor and director of research at Shriners Hospitals for Children in St. Louis. “The goal of this study was to show the importance of muscle strength in overriding many of the harmful effects of obesity on the joint.”
If every condition, process, and trait in our bodies is tightly linked to our genes, it’s conceivable that almost any aspect of our health could be manipulated using gene therapy and related tools. Maybe one day there will indeed be a pill we can take or a shot we can get to give us svelte, muscular bodies without any of the effort.
The fact that this would ruin the pleasure and satisfaction of a good workout is another conversation, and one not everybody would be interested in having. But even if genetic or chemical exercise replacement tools become safe to use in humans in the foreseeable future they’ll likely be limited, at least at first, to those who need them due to debilitating health conditions.
That said though, unfortunately, until these “wonder” exercise pills arrive you’ll just have to keep on punishing your eyeballs by watching those fantastic celebs on Zoom and YouTube if you want to get your exercise hit.