Chinese crack obesity cure

March 7th, 20120 Comments »
Telegraph India | 1/5/2011

Chinese scientists have unravelled the mechanism through which the bark of birch trees can prevent diet-induced obesity, an effect long recognised in traditional Indian medicine but not adequately probed through modern science.

A team of biomedical researchers in China has shown through experiments in mice that a molecule named betulin extracted from birch bark can decrease the synthesis of cholesterol, fatty acids and triglycerides, reduce arterial blockages, and increase sensitivity to insulin.

Their study, published yesterday in the journal Cell Metabolism, suggests that betulin may serve as a leading compound for control of high levels of cholesterol and diabetes.

Betulin appears to lead to lower expression of genes involved in cholesterol and fatty acid synthesis.

While Ayurvedic texts describe birch bark, or bhojpatra, as a possible remedy for obesity, and betulin had previously been identified as an active ingredient of birch bark, most traditional formulations involve a cocktail of several herbal substances.

Several public research institutions in India have long been trying to build scientific credence for traditional medicine claims through experimental verification but betulin’s mechanism of action in obesity has remained largely uninvestigated.

The Chinese team has shown that betulin inhibits the actions of a class of proteins called sterol regulatory element-binding proteins which are involved in activating genes that play a role in the synthesis of cholesterol, fatty acids and triglycerides.

“We believe this is a promising natural compound,” said Bao-Liang Song, a biologist at the Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Shanghai, who led the study.

“We’ve found the mechanism of action through which betulin acts and identified what we believe are good molecular targets for reducing cholesterol and fatty acids,” Song told The Telegraph in a telephone interview.

The Chinese researchers treated two groups of mice, which had been given a high-fat loaded diet, with betulin and a standard cholesterol-lowering agent called lovastatin.

The findings suggest that betulin may have similar or even better effects than lovastatin.

For instance, betulin decreased lipid levels in the liver and fat, more than what is achieved by lovastatin, and betulin also improves sensitivity to insulin through its effect on fatty acids and triglycerides.

Song said more studies would be needed to establish the safety of betulin for routine use in humans but future strategies might also seek to apply knowledge about its mechanism of action to design new derivative molecules that might be even more effective.

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