Magic pill for obesity? Harvard scientists working on drug to ‘replace treadmill’

Magic pill for obesity? Harvard scientists working on drug to ‘replace treadmill’
Dieters are constantly told that there is no ‘magic pill’ to make them skinny, that they need to watch what they eat and exercise. But researchers at Harvard University think they have found a way to turn bad fat into good, helping people lose weight.

Scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) have taken “the first step toward a pill that can replace the treadmill” when combating obesity, the researchers said in a statement. The team has found two compounds that have the potential to turn white (or “bad”) fat cells into brown (or “good”) fat cells.

White fat cells store excess energy (think: calories), which they circulate in the blood to fuel muscles. These cells play a role in the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other weight-related illnesses, while brown fat is used to generate heat. It can reduce the amount of fat in your bloodstream (called triglycerides), reduce insulin resistance (associated with type 2 diabetes) and burn bad fat.

The research team, led by HSCI principal faculty member Chad Cowan, screened a library of about 1,000 compounds. They found two molecules that convert white-fat producing stem cells into brown-like fat cells that burn excess energy and thus reduce the size and numbers of white fat cells ‒ like the ones that make up a beer gut.

“What we wanted to do is take the white fat no one wants, especially post-holidays, and turn it into the fat everyone wants, the brown fat,” Cowan told Bloomberg.

Reuters/Srdjan Zivulovic

Right now, the study only shows proof of concept, the Telegraph reported. But the researchers are optimistic that “you could someday come up with a small molecule that might be a pill that would replace a treadmill in terms of its ability to burn fat or burn calories,” the associate professor in Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology explained to Bloomberg

Essentially, the hypothetical pill would recreate the same effects as the two molecules. One of them, in fact, is already being triggered by a rheumatoid arthritis (RA) drug called tofacitinib.

“You’re constantly replenishing your fat tissue,” Cowan said in the Harvard statement, “so if you were on a medication to convert the cells, each new fat cell would be more metabolically active and would convert to brown fat over time.”

But it’s not as simple as just prescribing tofacitinib to obese patients. The molecule as currently on the market in the RA drug “plays a role in the inflammatory response. So if you administered them for a long time, the person taking them could become immune-compromised,” Cowan said. Therefore, the medication would need to be modified before it could be used to treat weight-related diseases.

Chad Cowan (Image from

The need for modification does not damper Cowan’s optimism about the potential the research has displayed.

“We were really impressed... there are some compounds that have this same kind of effect when they are administered to animals, but when you remove them, the effect goes away,” he said in the statement. “But what we saw here was a stable conversion” of white fat cells to brown cells.

A collaborator in Germany is currently testing the two molecules on mice.

“We expect to have results fairly soon,” Cowan said in the statement. “The compounds appear to work the same way in mice, but we don’t know what the long-term metabolic or immune system effects are.”

The report by Cowan and colleagues at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital was released online Monday by the journal Nature Cell Biology. Annie Moisan, a postdoctoral fellow in Cowan’s lab, was the lead author of the study, which resulted in part from a sponsored research collaboration with Roche Pharmaceuticals. That pairing has since ended for unrelated reasons, Cowan noted.

The HSCI faculty member is currently in discussions with several pharmaceutical companies to continue screening for similar molecules to the two that the researchers have already discovered. Working with Big Pharma would give Cowan and his team access to their libraries of 1.5 to 2 million compounds each.