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Scientists develop pill to mimic exercise

Monday, March 22, 2010

Houston scientists are working on an "exercise pill." The only ones who have tested it are mice. And they lost weight! It's probably been one of the best kept secrets in the Medical Center -- until now.

Everybody knows they should exercise. It protects your heart, protects against many cancers and knocks off the pounds. Even neurological diseases and people with diabetes benefit from exercise. But doctors say seven out of 10 of us can't, or won't, break a sweat. Even people who like exercising sometimes have to make themselves do it.

What if there was an exercise pill? It's not fantasy. Scientists are actually developing it. And it's already been successful in mice.

Dr. Vihang Narkar said, "You're tricking the muscle to believe it's actually exercising."

UT researcher Dr. Narkar found two ways to trick the muscle. One is a chemical called PPAR for short. The second is an energy sensor he calls AMPK. Using this information, researchers made two drugs hoping to mimic exercise and gave it to mice for a month.

"The mice that received the drug ran about 40% longer and farther than the controlled mice," said Dr. Narkar.

And he says it even worked in lazy mice.

"They did lose fat mass, and again I want to emphasize, this is without exercise," Dr. Narkar said.

Dr. Lynnette Mazur, Shriner's Hospital's Chief Pediatrician said, "It does seem too good to be true."

Dr. Mazur would love to have a pill to help the kids in wheelchairs at Shriner's Hospital in Houston.

"Definitely," she said. "(It) definitely would help people with limited mobility to become more fit."

Patient Regan Fontenot said, "Wow, something like that could actually help me."

Regan has spina bifida. He's as active as he can be. He competes in the Special Olympics track and in bowling tournaments. But it's not enough.

"(An exercise pill) would help me tremendously," he said. "I know I would still have to exercise but it would help me keep my weight down and that would help me be more mobile."

Regan is exactly why UT scientists are working so hard to invent an exercise pill. They think would help kids like Regan with muscular dystrophy, spina bifida, spinal cord disorders, eople with diabetes and those who are obese. But a safe exercise pill he says is at least 10 years away. And there may be some real downsides.

Dr. Mazur explained, "The side effects in the study with the mice showed that they did have some renal effects, kidney effects and heart effects."

Those are organs that exercise is supposed to help. But the UT health researchers believe they're on the right track. Regan hopes so, too.

"I'd say use the pill, but also exercise," Regan advised.

That's the same advice the scientists gave us, if the exercise pill ever becomes a reality. The UT health scientists are focusing on two major areas. They're testing the "exercise pill" on muscular dystrophy and other muscular diseases. The second is testing it for obesity and diabetes.

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