Jan 2015

Could we fight obesity with a pill?

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As the new year rolls out and people struggle to keep their resolutions to shed excess pounds, it’s good to know stem cell scientists are on the case.

In December, researchers from Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) showed they are one step closer to creating a pill that could help control obesity.

Obesity occurs when there is an accumulation of body fat in the form of white fat cells. In most cases, it is caused by an excessive intake of calories and inadequate exercise to burn them off. About 6 million Canadians are living with obesity, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and many other severe health conditions.

As described in the report published by Nature Cell Biology, the HSCI team identified two compounds that can turn “bad” white fat cells into “good” brown fat cells. Brown fat cells  burn excess calories and reduce the number of white fat cells in order to generate heat.

While the discovery of the compounds is promising, there could be side effects on the immune system. Dr. Chad Cowan of Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, warned that “if you administered the compounds for a long time, the person taking them could become immune-compromised.” That would make them more prone to infections.

In addition, as Dr. Cowan explained in CTV’s report, “the pill will never replace a healthy lifestyle, but can definitely benefit the patient population at risk.” The pill, in fact, would not be able to bring the benefits of physical exercise.

The transition from this discovery to a safe clinical treatment will likely take many years. However, “a decade of hard, basic science work is paying off,” said to Dr. Cowan,  “The good news/bad news is that science is slow. We thought that working with stem cells would lead to the discovery of new drugs and therapies, and now it’s really starting to happen.”

Discover how the Canadian Stem Cell Strategy & Action Plan will accelerate the development of stem cell treatments for several diseases over the next decade. Click here to find out more.

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