Popping a workout? Future pill may mimic exercise gains for muscle health

Research offers hope for those unable to exercise because of age, illness or injury

New compounds mimic benefits of exercise, offering hope for those unable to exert themselves. Getty Images
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Researchers say they have created a pill that can simulate the health benefits of exercise.

They say it could provide an alternative for people who are unable to engage in physical activity because of various reasons such as ageing, illness or medical conditions.

"Our inspiration stems from the immense health benefits associated with regular exercise," the lead investigator of the project, Bahaa Elgendy, a professor of anaesthesiology at Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, told The National.

"Exercise has been shown to improve various aspects of health, such as cardiovascular function, metabolism, mental well-being and overall quality of life.

"However, not everyone is able to engage in regular physical activity due to various barriers, such as age, physical limitations or medical conditions."

The findings were presented at the American Chemical Society's Spring 2024 meeting in New Orleans, highlighting the potential of new compounds to mimic the positive effects of physical exercise on muscle cells in rodents.

"The impact of exercise mimetics on healthcare and patient quality of life can be significant," says Prof Elgendy, the project’s principal investigator.

"By providing a way to improve health and well-being without the requirement for strenuous physical exertion, exercise mimetics may help people who are physically limited or have health conditions that make exercising difficult.

"This could lead to improved management and prevention of chronic diseases, enhanced cardiovascular function, increased metabolism and better mental health.

“We cannot replace exercise; exercise is important on all levels.

“If I can exercise, I should go ahead and get the physical activity. But there are so many cases in which a substitute is needed.”

In such cases, a pharmacological substitute could play a crucial role in maintaining muscle health and function.

Prof Elgendy's team has focused on understanding how exercise enhances muscle cell metabolism and growth, and improves overall muscle performance.

Their research led to the development of a compound named SLU-PP-332, which activates oestrogen-related receptors (ERRs) involved in the body's adaptation to exercise.

"This compound shows promise as a potential exercise mimetic, offering a non-exercise-based approach to promoting some of the benefits associated with physical activity," Prof Elgendy said.

“In all of these conditions, ERRs play a major role. If you have a compound that can activate them effectively, you could generate so many beneficial effects.”

This compound was found to increase endurance and a fatigue-resistant type of muscle fibre in mice.

Building on this discovery, the researchers designed new molecules to enhance the interaction with ERRs, aiming for a more potent simulation of exercise's effects.

These new compounds showed promise in preliminary tests.

"By activating ERRs, SLU-PP-332 essentially "tricks" the cells into behaving as if they have experienced exercise, even in the absence of actual physical activity," Prof Elgendy said.

"This activation of ERRs can potentially lead to improved metabolic health, increased endurance, and other benefits similar to those observed with regular exercise."

The potential applications of these findings are broad, ranging from dealing with muscle atrophy and weakness associated with ageing or illness, to addressing side-effects of medications that cause muscle loss.

And the activation of ERRs by these compounds could offer therapeutic benefits for conditions such as obesity, heart failure and even neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, where these receptors play a significant role.

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As the research progresses, Prof Elgendy and his colleagues, through their start-up Pelagos Pharmaceuticals, plan to test these new compounds in animal models.

"These compounds may target various aspects of metabolism, cellular function, and energy utilization to address conditions such as obesity, heart failure, and kidney function decline," he said.

"By modulating these pathways, these compounds have the potential to promote favorable physiological changes that contribute to improved health outcomes in these specific conditions".

Updated: March 18, 2024, 10:16 AM