Obesity sufferers have been given new hope after a drug used to combat alcoholism has been linked to dramatic weight loss in animals.
Obesity sufferers have been given new hope after a drug used to combat alcoholism has been linked to dramatic weight loss in animals.

Drug gives new hope in fight against obesity

A drug used for over half a century to combat alcoholism has been linked to "dramatic" weight loss in animals, sparking hopes of a new anti-obesity treatment for millions of Australians.

A study of obese mice given the medication disulfiram showed the rodents lost weight much faster than mice that only went on a diet, while also improving metabolic function.

"Once we started to see data showing dramatic weight loss and leaner body mass in the mice, we turned to each other and couldn't quite believe our eyes," lead scientist Michel Bernier said.

More than 12 million people across Australia are overweight or obese, but GPs have urged caution until there's proof it works in humans, and any patient would have to give up booze or risk making themselves sick.

Researchers from the National Institute on ageing in the United States found the drug also appeared to protect the pancreas and liver from damage caused by pre-diabetic type metabolic changes and fat build up.

The NIA, part of the US government's medical research agency the National Institutes of Health, is now planning a controlled clinical trial to test if disulfiram could help morbidly obese humans lose weight.

The results, published in the journal Cell Metabolism this month, showed obese mice on a high-fat diet lost 40 per cent of their body weight in four weeks when treated with a high dose of disulfiram, effectively matching the body weight reductions seen in other obese mice who switched back to a standard diet without the drug.

Although the drug has showed promising signs, experts warn it’s years away from being used on humans. Picture: iStock
Although the drug has showed promising signs, experts warn it’s years away from being used on humans. Picture: iStock

The National Prescribing Service, also known as NPS MedicineWise, warns that even if human trials were successful, the drug is still years away from coming to market.

A GP and adviser to the government-funded not-for-profit advised against patients using the drug to lose weight until there was concrete evidence it was safe and effective.

"We have no idea that it would work in human beings," Dr Jill Thistlethwaite said.

"They don't know what the physiological and biochemical mechanisms are that have caused what appears to be this weight loss."

A group of middle-aged lab mice of both sexes were fattened up over 12 weeks before researchers divided the animals into four experimental groups for an additional three months.

Two groups were given high or low doses of disulfiram while continuing a high-fat diet, while the other two groups acted as controls, eating either a standard or high-fat diet without the drug.

The nine-month-old mice had started to show signs of pre-diabetes-like metabolic problems, such as insulin resistance and elevated fasting blood sugar levels.

But the mice in both disulfiram groups rapidly lost weight and showed significant blood glucose level improvements akin to the animals that returned to a standard diet without the medication.

None of the mice were made to exercise during the study, nor did the scientists note any harmful side effects caused by the drug use.

But Dr Thistlethwaite said "side effects are only going to show up with larger numbers of participants."

For more than 50 years disulfiram has been given to alcoholics, who then quickly feel nauseous if they drink booze.

But this class of drug has also previously treated rats with type-2 diabetes, and the research team believe the positive results in the mouse study stem from disulfiram's anti-inflammatory effects.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration says the drug won't be available in Australia until November, and it has previously not been subsidised on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Originally published as Drug gives new hope in fight against obesity



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