For some seriously obese people, the amount of exercise or dieting necessary to address their condition is just too extreme to maintain. There may be new hope on the horizon, however, as scientists are working toward a drug that would allow patients to lose weight without exercising or making any changes to their diet.

Led by Prof. Damien Keating, researchers at Australia's Flinders University started by identifying an obesity-related gene in rodents, known as RCAN1. The team then genetically altered a batch of mice, in order to remove that gene. Those animals were subsequently put on a variety of diets over time periods ranging from eight weeks to six months. In all cases, even when being fed high-fat foods, none of the mice gained weight.

It was found that with the RCAN1 out of the way, the animals' bodies were much better at converting "unhealthy" energy-storing white fat into healthy energy-burning brown fat. This occurred even as the mice were resting.

The scientists are now investigating whether or not suppressing RCAN1 activity in humans could have a similar effect. They will additionally have to take potential side effects into account, as the gene protects cells against stressors that can lead to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

"We have already developed a series of drugs that target the protein that this gene makes, and we are now in the process of testing them to see if they inhibit RCAN1 and whether they might represent potential new anti-obesity drugs," says Keating. "In light of our results, the drugs we are developing to target RCAN1 would burn more calories while people are resting. It means the body would store less fat without the need for a person to reduce food consumption or exercise more."