Barking up right tree in battle against obesity

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A DRUG commonly found in birch bark may provide effective new treatments for obesity, heart disease and diabetes, scientists have discovered.

The compound, called betulin, targets genes involved in the production of harmful blood fats.

In animal studies, it lowered cholesterol levels, helped to prevent diet-induced obesity and reduced the risk of diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity.

Betulin is "abundant in birch bark" according to the Chinese team, led by Dr Bao-Liang Song, from the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences.

Their studies suggested betulin may be even more effective than lovastatin, a member of the statin class of drugs widely prescribed for controlling cholesterol levels.

Betulin decreased damaging compounds in liver and fat to a greater extent than lovastatin. It also made the body respond better to insulin, through its effects on fatty acids.

Betulin is already used in the manufacture of other drugs, Dr Song said. But he pointed out that, although it appears to have very low toxicity, further studies were needed to assess its safety and metabolic effects.

Research might also yield derivatives of betulin that were even more promising, he said.

"That may be the path forward to move this clinically," he added.