In 2008 scientists at the Salk Institute in California took mice that could only be described as coach potatoes and turned them into marathon mice after administering two specific drugs.
The drug switched on a gene that triggered a process that increased their endurance without exercise resulting in them being able to run 44% longer than previously, on a specially built mini treadmill.
The purpose of the experiment is to see if one day such a drug could help people who suffer from obesity, muscle wasting diseases and those that have been in hospital a long time. By helping them maintain a minimum fitness level could lead them to an earlier recovery.
One of the drugs used was GW1516, developed by the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo-Smith-Kline. This drug was developed as a drug to increase HDL (the good cholesterol) in the bloodstream but for reasons unknown was halted part way through the trials and is not available commercially.
However because HDL is made through exercise scientists continue to use it in this type of research.
When they administered it to the mice it lowered the blood sugars and fatty acids but did nothing else. However when the mice were made to exercise for up to 50 minutes a day it increase their endurance levels by 77% more than drug free mice who did the same amount of exercise. This showed that the drug was increasing their endurance. They then combined it with a compound called AICAR. AICAR triggers the body to make a protein that is normally produced during exercise to signal that it should burn more energy. This was then given to the sedentary mice, which activated their energy sensors imitating exercise. 20 doses of this drug combination resulted in the mice showing the endurance levels equivalent to 20 days of exercise.
The theory is that these two drugs activated the PPAR-delta gene that contributes to developing endurance after an ongoing regimen of exercise.
Could this be the beginning of an exercise pill?
What the pill is doing is genetically altering the subject and viruses or injections of genetic material would be required to transport the new gene into the body. This is a dangerous and complicated process and is only considered in the case of serious illness.
Competing athletes could use the drugs. Genetic engineering is something that the World Anti-Doping Agency is well aware of and they know that there are competitors out there who would not hesitate to take the risk if it meant enhanced athletic performance. However the researches developed a simple test that can easily find these drugs.
However if the results for chemical exercise is the same for true exercise then this will not be the end of trying to develop a safe and effective ‘exercise pill’
It’s worth pointing out that the drugs used in the Salk Institute experiment are not available on the market and at the time were not approved for human consumption.