The future of weight loss: A 'marijuana' diet pill?

The Week's Editorial Staff

Limiting a brain compound that regulates metabolism allows genetically altered mice to stay skinny without exercising. Is a dream pill far behind?

If you find the prospect of staying thin while eating as much as you want appealing, scientists have news for you. New research from the University of California, Irvine — detailed in the March issue of Cell Metabolism — found that certain brain chemicals with characteristics similar to marijuana might help the body shed pounds without any exercise. A dream come true? Here's a brief look at the promising discovery:

What chemical could have such power?
It's an endocannabinoid compound called 2-AG. Endocannabinoids, as the name might suggest, share a similar molecular structure to the active ingredients in cannabis. Typically, high levels of 2-AG are found in the brains of mammals, and previous studies suggested that these compounds may make the body crave fat. Scientists think endocannabinoids play a key role in regulating the body's metabolism, or the energy it makes from food.

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How did scientists put the compound to the test?
Researchers genetically engineered brain cells in mice to exhibit low levels of 2-AG, on the theory that this would allow the rodents' metabolic rates to "go crazy," says Kristen Philipkoski at Gizmodo. And the hunch was right. These mice lived in a "hypermetabolic state," burning fat calories far more efficiently than normal mice, study researcher Daniele Piomeli said in a statement. They were "resistant to obesity," staying thin despite a high-fat diet without exercise. They even had normal blood pressure, and showed no increased risk of heart disease or diabetes. 

How could this discovery help humans?
"To produce the desired effects, we would need to create a drug that blocks 2-AG production in the brain," says Piomeli, "something we're not yet able to do." 

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So can we expect a miracle pill in the foreseeable future?
"Tweaking" human brain chemistry is no easy task, says Philipkoski. And preliminary estimates say it would take a decade and cost up to $2 billion to make the drug safe and effective enough for the FDA to to approve it. "So don't cancel that gym membership just yet," says Piomeli.

Sources: Gizmodo, LA Weekly, Live Science, Medical Xpress

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