The benefits of exercise are manifold, something we all know to be a fact. Exercise reduces the risk of major illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and stroke. It also lowers stress levels, promotes the growth of new neurons, and extends life expectancy. Yet for some people – including the elderly, the obese, and those with reduced mobility – these benefits are out of reach. For others, exercise is indeed an option, but it is simply not the pastime of choice. What if we could enhance training with a drug, and obtain these benefits with a little less effort?
We’re not quite there yet, but new research published in Cell Metabolism has opened promising avenues. Scientists at Salk Institute in San Diego have identified a molecule that can activate what is called the PPARD pathway, a signalling pathway that is naturally activated during exercise. This molecule – which goes by the name of GW1516 or GW – works to promote fat burning and endurance.
This meant that they had more energy left for their brains and more endurance to carry on running.
To test the effectiveness of the GW, they isolated a group of mice and kept them sendentary from birth before dividing them into two groups. One group was given a new drug called GW, while the other group was given a placebo. They were then subjected to treadmill tests to see how long they could run for. They found that control mice could only run for 160 minutes on average, while mice that were given GW1516 were able to run for an average of 270 minutes. It took them 70% longer than it took the control group to hit the so-called “wall”.
To understand what was happening at a molecular level, the team conducted a gene expression test in a major muscle. The test revealed that 975 genes were changed after receiving GW. Among those were genes responsible for breaking down carbohydrates for energy. These genes were suppresed, while genes related to fat burning were activated. Interestingly, they did not observe any changes associated with prolonged training such as increases in blood vessel number. Changes were solely related to glucose management.
It usually takes longer for muscles to start burning fat than it takes to start burning sugar, which explains why runners experience mental tiredness when they run out of glucose.
In mice that had PPARD activated, sugar was no longer the main energy source. This meant that they had more energy left for their brains and more endurance to carry on running.
The researchers have plans to build on these findings and develop clinical trials in humans, and Russia has already approved testing the compound in human subjects. Now we must ask ourselves: if fit for human use, would a GW-based pill give a free pass to couchmarathon to those fit for exercising? Or to eating junk food? The idea may seem seducing, but do we want “doping” to become the norm?
This molecule – which goes by the name of GW1516 or GW – works to promote fat burning and endurance
Clearly, improving endurance through pharmacotherapy would offer enormous benefits to those who are hospitalised for long periods to stop muscle degeneration. It would also help those who are too obese to start exercising. For the rest of us though, one thing is sure: exercise remains the best medicine. Better put those trainers on and get going!
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