The fight against obesity is costing the global economy an estimated US$2 trillion annually and has been dubbed a modern health epidemic. However, new research has uncovered a possible cure for obesity that is, literally, as plain as dirt.
While investigating how drug delivery in our bodies can be improved using clay materials, Tahnee Dening, a researcher and PhD candidate from the University of South Australia, accidentally discovered that the clay materials she was using had a unique ability to ‘soak up’ fat droplets in our gut. This accidental discovery could potentially be a cure for obesity.
Explaining her discovery Ms Dening says. “I was investigating the capacity of specifically clay materials to improve the oral delivery and absorption of antipsychotic drugs, when I noticed that the clay particles weren’t behaving as I’d expected. Instead of breaking down to release drugs, the clay materials were attracting fat droplets and literally soaking them up. Not only were the clay materials trapping the fats within their particle structure, but they were also preventing them from being absorbed by the body, ensuring that fat simply passed through the digestive system.”
An overweight person is more likely to be affected with serious health conditions such as cardio-vascular disease, type-2 diabetes and some cancers. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, obesity is increasing; almost two in three adults, and one in four children, are now overweight or obese. If this continues, nearly half the world’s population will be overweight or obese by 2030. There are very few effective drugs today that help in counteracting obesity and many companies are investing huge amounts of money to discover and develop alternative treatments for obesity.
Ms Dening’s research investigated the effects of montmorillonite—a natural clay material, purified from dirt and laponite - a synthetic clay, in rats fed on a high-fat diet, comparing against a placebo and a leading weight-loss drug, Orlistat. Over a two-week period, she found that while both the engineered clay formulations and Orlistat delivered weight-loss effects, the clay material outperformed the drug.
Ms Denning says the finding offers new insights for obesity and weight management, particularly when used in combination with the commercial drug where there is potential for synergy. “Our processed clay has an unusually high surface area which means it has a huge capacity to interact with and soak up digested fats and oils present in the foods we eat,” she says. “Orlistat on the other hand, is an enzyme inhibitor that blocks up to 30 percent of dietary fat digestion and absorption, which leads to weight loss, but has unpleasant side effects such as stomach aches, bloating, flatulence and diarrhoea, which limits its use in weight loss as people choose to stop using it.”
This led her to consider researching a synergistic approach with both the clay material and Orlistat; the drug blocks the enzyme that digests fat molecules and the clay particles trap these fats so they’re excreted out of the body without causing gastro-intestinal disturbances. She explained, “We’re essentially attacking fat digestion and absorption in two different ways and we hope this will lead to greater weight loss with fewer side-effects.”
University of South Australia’s professor Clive Prestidge, and Ms Denning’s research supervisor, says the research has already captured the attention of potential investors. “This is a significant discovery that provides new and exciting avenues for weight loss research which naturally attracts potential commercial partners,” Prof Prestidge says. “With a finding like this, people will naturally be keen to find out when they can try it. Given that the material is generally considered safe and is widely used in food and nutraceutical products, it is feasible that human clinical trials could start reasonably soon.”