Scientists have created a gut molecule that may be able to combat obesity, according to a new study.

Obesity affects one in three Americans, and strongly increases the risk for developing several diseases and conditions, including heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, as well as certain types of cancers. So finding a way to curb this epidemic other than simple diet and exercise is crucial, especially since efforts thus far have failed.

In recent years, numerous studies have shown that the population of microbes naturally living in the gut may be a key factor in determining the risk for obesity and related diseases. Researchers at Vanderbilt University, led by Sean Davies, ran with this idea, and programmed bacteria to generate a molecule that, through normal metabolism, becomes a hunger-suppressing lipid.

The bacteria they picked were N-acyl-phosphatidylethanolamines (NAPEs), which are produced in the small intestine after a meal and are quickly converted into N-acyl-ethanolamines (NAEs) - potent appetite-suppressing lipids. They altered the genes of a strain of probiotic bacteria so it would make NAPEs and tested it on mice.

Mice that drank water laced with the programmed bacteria ate less, had lower body fat and staved off diabetes - even when fed a high-fat diet - offering a potential weight-loss strategy for humans.

Specifically, the mice drinking the NAPE-making bacteria gained 15 percent less weight over the eight weeks of treatment compared to those that that didn't receive treatment. In addition, their livers and glucose metabolism were better than in the control mice.

Davies and his colleagues hope to one day produce therapeutic bacteria that live in the gut for six months or a year, providing sustained drug delivery and a better option to daily weight-loss drugs.

"We need strategies that deliver the drug without requiring the patient to remember to take their pills every few hours," Davies explained in a statement.

However, the researchers are quick to point out that there is the risk of transmitting these special bacteria to another via fecal exposure. For example, the elderly or young people in particular would be most susceptible to contracting these appetite-suppressing bacteria, potentially causing harm.

"So, we are working on genetically modifying the bacteria to significantly reduce its ability to be transmitted," Davies added.

The team will describe their approach at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

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