A new drug being tested as a treatment for obesity has been shown to have promising results in early clinical trials.
The potential medicine, taranabant, works on cannabinoid receptors found in the brain.
These receptors are involved in the feeling of hunger that people experience when using marijuana, but instead of activating the receptors as marijuana does, taranabant blocks them.
Scientists from Merck Research Laboratories tested the drug for 12 weeks on 368 obese people who were either given the drug or a placebo.
People who took taranabant were found to consume fewer calories, burn more fat, expend more energy at rest and therefore lose significantly more weight compared to the placebo group. The drug caused side effects in some of the people in the study.
Diabetes UK's view
Dr Iain Frame, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, said: “Obesity is one of the leading risk factors of Type 2 diabetes. Around 100,000 people are diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes every year with around 80 per cent of people being overweight or obese at time of diagnosis.
“It would be wrong to assume that we can solve the obesity crisis with drugs, and Diabetes UK strongly recommends eating a healthy diet and regular physical activity as the first and best step to losing weight. However, some people find losing weight extremely difficult and medication may be useful.
“Research is still at an early stage. Therefore, we cannot determine now whether this drug will be useful as a treatment for obesity.”
Diabetes UK funded research
Researchers funded by Diabetes UK are currently investigating the role of cannabinoid receptors in the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. It is expected that this project will provide an important understanding of how taranabant and similar drugs may affect people with diabetes.
A larger study on taranabant
A larger, longer-term study by Merck Research Laboratories is now underway to further examine the effects of taranabant as an anti-obesity therapy.
An alternative to taranabant
Taranabant is not the only drug that may be useful for treating obesity. Rimonabant, which works in a similar way, has been approved in some countries for treatment of obesity alongside diet and exercise. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, which makes decisions on all medications in the UK, is currently reviewing whether rimonabant should be available on the NHS.