Anecdotal stories of spicy foods contributing to weight loss have circulated through the population for many years. In recent years, researchers have begun to tease out the molecular mechanisms that regulate the “hot” effect caused by peppers in the chili family—uncovering the possibility of some credence behind those weight loss stories. Now, investigators at the University of Wyoming School of Pharmacy have just reported that a novel drug based on capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers their spicy burn, caused long-term weight loss and improved metabolic health in mice eating a high-fat diet.

The researchers presented the new data at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior in a presentation titled “Pharmacological and Safety Analyses of Subchronic Oral Metabocin™ Feeding in Mice.” The new drug, called Metabocin, was designed to slowly release capsaicin throughout the day so it can exert its weight loss effects without producing inflammation or adverse side effects.

“We observed marked improvements in blood sugar and cholesterol levels, insulin response, and symptoms of fatty liver disease,” explained senior study investigator Baskaran Thyagarajan, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of pharmaceutics and neuroscience at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Thyagarajan went on to describe how Metabocin reversed many damaging effects of the high-fat diet.

The University of Wyoming team developed Metabocin, which can be taken orally, to target receptors called TRPV1 (transient receptor potential vanilloid subfamily 1) that are found in high numbers in fat cells. Stimulating the TRPV1 receptors causes white fat cells to start burning energy instead of storing it, which, in theory, should cause weight loss.

An important question for the researchers was whether the drug remains effective when used long-term and whether adverse effects would outweigh its benefits. The mice in this experiment remained on the drug for eight months, maintaining the weight loss with no evidence of safety problems. Additional ongoing experiments will see how long that can be maintained.

“It proved safe and was well tolerated by the mice,” Dr. Thyagarajan concluded. “Developing Metabocin as a potent anti-obesity treatment shows promise as part of a robust strategy for helping people struggling with obesity.”

While these results may give some people the idea to eat more spicy food to lose weight, that would not work as intended. Most of the capsaicin in spicy food is not well absorbed by the body so it would not produce the effects that the researchers observed in their study. The researchers specifically modified the capsaicin in Metabocin for proper absorption and sustained release.

Obesity is a growing public health concern, resulting in metabolic diseases including type 2 diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and heart diseases. Currently, one in three individuals worldwide is either overweight or obese. Exercise and diet are the standard recommendations, but those are difficult for most people to maintain in the long term and rebound weight gain usually occurs. The Wyoming researchers advocated for continuing to pursue medical options that stay effective in the long term to counter obesity and its metabolic impacts, to assist people seeking to maintain a healthier weight.

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