By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/9/2011 2:00:52 PM ET 2011-11-09T19:00:52

A simple medication that leads to weight loss with no dieting or exercise could be a big step toward every dieter's dream. The study is only in monkeys, but tests in people could begin shortly.

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Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston gave monkeys a drug, a protein compound called adipotide, that targets the blood supply to fat cells and kills them.  After only 28 daily injections of the drug the monkeys lost an average of 11 percent of their body weight.

The researchers, headed by the husband and wife team Wadih Arap and Renata Pasqualini, have been working on the project for years. In 2004 the research team proved the drug could bring substantial weight loss in mice. Now, after the highly successful results in monkeys, they have applied for FDA approval to begin trials in people, possibly within a year.

"It is incredibly exciting, a dream coming true in slow motion,”  says Arap.

In the results reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the scientists did not use monkeys that were made genetically obese or forced to become fat in some other way. They chose the animals in the colony that tended to eat more and exercise less. They were “couch potatoes” of the simian colony as Kirstin Barnhart, another of the researchers put it.

Read more about the research

"Within a few weeks of administering the drug it became clear to us that the efficacy we had seen in rodents was being transplanted to monkeys," Barnhart said. "They were getting their waistlines back so we were staring to see the effect. It was such an important milestone for the drug."

MRIs confirmed that the weight loss was the result of shedding the so-called "white" body fat that most humans need to lose and is linked to Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It was not water, muscle, or some other essential tissue in the body.

Careful examination did reveal a slight, reversible kidney changes that will need to be monitored carefully in the human trials.

After 28 days on the drug, the monkeys maintained their weight loss for about two weeks, but once they went back into the colony and resumed their slothful overeating ways, the weight returned.

If the drug were to prove successful in humans it would never be permanent solution, experts say. It would be a kick-start used along with future diet and exercise.

"How energizing would it be to lose 11 percent that first month," said Barnhart  “That’s going to really get you focused.”

How great is the desire for the drug? Despite explaining all the limitations of the research, the scientists say they always get the same question: " 'When it is it going to be ready, 'cause I want some,' says Pasqualini.

The answer, of course, is that lots of unpredictable research still lies ahead.

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Video: Drug helps monkeys lose weight – humans next?

  1. Transcript of: Drug helps monkeys lose weight – humans next?

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: We turn now to health and a high-stakes equation. With two-thirds of the American people either overweight or obese, the search for an effective weight-loss drug has surpassed even the cure for the common cold as the holy grail of drugmakers. Now a new medication has actually killed off fat cells , at least in a test of monkeys. Question is, are humans next? The story from our chief science correspondent, Robert Bazell .

    ROBERT BAZELL reporting: The popularity of the show " The Biggest Loser " is one of the countless examples of people's desire to lose weight .

    BAZELL: While the study was only conducted on monkeys, the results could be a big step toward a drug that truly helps with that effort. After only 28 days on the drug, overweight monkeys lost an average of 11 percent of their body fat .

    Dr. WADIH ARAP: It's incredibly exciting and is especially a dream coming true in slow motion.

    BAZELL: Doctors Wadih Arap and Renata Pasqualini , a husband and wife team from Brazil , have been working on the project at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for years. The drug, called adipotide, cuts off the blood supply to fat cells and kills them. In 2004 , the scientists showed a drastically reduced weight in mice. With the success of monkeys, the researchers are applying to the FDA for permission to start a trial in humans, possibly within a year. They know there will be no shortage of volunteers. The researchers say whenever they discuss the project, they always hear the same question.

    Dr. RENATA PASQUALINI: When is it ready? Because I would like some.

    BAZELL: The monkeys in the experiment were not bred to be fat or fed a special diet. They were the ones in the colony who simply ate more and exercised less.

    Dr. KIRSTIN BARNHART (University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center): They get overweight on their own. It's very much like humans. It's the same human behaviors.

    BAZELL: MRIs showed the drug eliminated no muscle, only fat, the red and orange in these pictures. After they stopped taking the drug, the monkeys resumed their couch potato ways and gained the weight back again. So if the drug proves safe and effective in humans, it will likely be a tool to kick-start the familiar diet and exercise program that everyone painfully knows is the true key to weight loss . Robert Bazell , NBC News, New York.


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