There is yet more evidence this week that the holy grail of over-eaters - a pill which can help them lose weight - may yet become a reality. Different techniques are being tested all over the world, and the latest evidence to be published comes from the University of Dundee in Scotland.
Professor Grahame Hardie, Professor of Cellular Signalling at the University's the School of Life Sciences, discovered a system called AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK)in the 1980s. AMPK is switched on by exercise, and triggers the "burning off" of carbohydrate and fats by muscle, preventing them from being stored in fat tissue.
The system is thought to be responsible for the beneficial effects of exercise in warding off obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and drugs that activate AMPK would mimic this.
The drug metformin (derived from the herbal remedy French lilac) is already widely used to treat Type 2 diabetes, although it was not previously understood how it worked. Now, however, an explanation has been provided: it switches on the AMPK system.
Professor Hardie is working with pharmaceutical companies to develop a new generation of AMPK-activating drugs that may be more effective than metformin.
Insulin is the hormone that stimulates tissues to take up glucose from the blood. Type 1 diabetes (more common in children) is due to a lack of insulin, whereas the Type 2 form is due to the body failing to respond properly to insulin.
The incidence of the Type 2 form is rocketing across the world, probably due to the modern urban lifestyle of high-calorie, high-fat junk foods combined with lack of exercise. As many as 5 per cent of the Scottish population may already have the disease, but because of its long-term consequences such as increased susceptibility to heart attacks, strokes, blindness, kidney damage and foot amputations, it is thought to account for over 10 per cent of all health service expenditure, the University said.Although the Type 2 form was previously only diagnosed in older people, it has recently been found in young people who are overweight.
Professor Hardie said: "We discovered that the AMPK system is activated in cells when they run short of energy, and it triggers the uptake and metabolism of glucose and fats. Clearly the best policy is to eat sensibly and exercise regularly, which will greatly reduce your chances of becoming overweight and developing Type 2 diabetes.
"However when regular exercise is not possible, such as in older people where other health problems may prevent it, drugs that activate AMPK are an alternative. They may help to combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle."
Professor Hardie is co-ordinator of a European commission project on AMPK worth £1.1 million (€1.79m). He also recently received a new grant (£1 million) from the Wellcome Trust for his studies on the system, and holds a grant worth £0.25 million from the charity, Diabetes UK.
Professor Hardie is also organising an international conference on AMPK where experts from across the world will discuss these developments, to be held in the West Park Centre, Dundee, this September.