Monday, January 30, 2012

The Irisin Scare

Jan's B-Log was intended to mean Bicycling-Log, but since I am a biotechnologist, I think it is OK to change subjects from time to time, so this post has a Bio-Log-y theme. But as you will see, it is bicycling related, or more generally, exercise related.

A couple of weeks ago, a paper in the journal Nature has described a discovery of a new peptide hormone, called Irisin: Boström, P.; Wu, J.; Jedrychowski, M. P.; Korde, A.; Ye, L.; Lo, J. C.; Rasbach, K. A.; Boström, E. A. et al. (2012). "A PGC1-α-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis". Nature.
You can read more about Irisin here, here, and here, but the long and complicated biology story is that this hormone is induced by exercise, triggers browning of fat tissue, and elevated blood levels of this peptide promote energy expenditure even in absence of movement or food intake. The authors suggest that this molecule could be prepared as a theraputic for metabolic disease and improvement of glucose homeostasis (states typically leading to type 2 diabetes).

This breakthrough publication reminded me of one day in 1996 when my boss and I drove to Vienna to hear a lecture by Jeffrey Friedman, who discovered the hormone leptin in 1994 at the Rockefeller University. Leptin was thought to be THE cure for obesity, mainly based on the fact that mice lacking a gene for this hormone, so called Ob-/Ob- mice eat voraciously and quickly become morbidly obese.

After the Vienna trip and talk, I spent two years preparing antibodies against the leptin peptide. As it turned out, mice are not little men and the leptin story proved much more complicated than thought at that time, thus no miracle obesity pill resulted.
There is also a business part to this story: the biotech / pharma giant Amgen paid $20 million to Rockefeller U. for drug rights on leptin. And there is a company called Ember Therapeutics who got $34 million of venture capital to turn Irisin into a drug.
I am not against turning scientific discoveries into medicines, that's what pays my salary and allows me to ride nice bikes. But I do not believe it is possible to take large amounts of energy (food) in and then get rid of it by taking a pill, without our body burning or lighting up or something like that. And I also think that the cure for type two diabetes already exists: every doctor will tell you that diet and exercise will lead to improvement in at least 90% of diabetics. But it is the HARD way and nobody wants to go that route. Wait a sec, nobody, really? On my weekend bike rides and runs, as well as during commuting to work by bike, I see plenty of people who would not exchange their way of staying healthy and having fun for any pill. I am also sure all of us would prefer the side effects of running or biking (blisters, sore muscles and bruished shins) over the yet unknown side effects of Irisin.
And just imagine how many new trails could be built with $54 million....

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