Zen-Bio and Pennington Biomedical Research Center (PBRC) said the initial phase of their collaboration will involve screening thousands of botanical extracts for their beneficial effects on abdominal fat cells and adult stem cells. "This program gives us a unique opportunity to identify natural products that impact the function of human abdominal fat and the progression of metabolic disease," said Ben Buehrer, vice president of Zen-Bio. Zen-Bio provides research tools for the study of human metabolic disease. PBRC conducts basic, clinical and population research in the area of nutrition. Through its Botanical Research Center, which it holds together with Rutgers University, PBRC also has a library of botanical extracts. Researchers from Zen-Bio will screen the compounds with their human fat-derived stem cell screening system, said the groups. "This program brings together the expertise of Zen-Bio and PBRC in metabolic disease research with that of the Botanical Research Center to discover natural therapeutics for obesity and diabetes." "Both Zen-Bio and PBRC recognize the critical molecular differences between non-human and human tissue, and are diving right into human primary cell screening to eliminate costly artifacts," said Buehrer. "We also realize subcutaneous and abdominal fat have different roles in the progression of metabolic disease and are focusing on abdominal fat for that reason." Globesity The collaboration comes at a time of increased focus on natural ways to address obesity and metabolic syndrome, as ever larger proportions of the western population becomes affected by the conditions. Metabolic syndrome is defined as a collection of health conditions, including fat around the waistline, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and low HDL cholesterol, which taken together, significantly increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. An estimated 15 per cent of the European adult population already have this combination of obesity-related conditions, and figures on childhood obesity suggest that Europe could follow the US trend for rising metabolic syndrome among the younger generation. In the US, incidence of metabolic syndrome has risen dramatically in the past 10 years and now affects up to 32 per cent of adults, an estimated 50 million people. "One of our goals was to find and test promising botanicals that may be effective in treating obesity, and equally as important, preventing the progression to diabetes," said William Cefalu, of Pennington Biomedical Research Center. "Clearly, obesity and diabetes increase heart disease risk and both are reaching epidemic levels. We believe we can make real progress quickly in our search for effective clinical interventions." Challenges Although consumer demand for 'natural' ways to address obesity and related diseases, a recent petition filed in the US could create a major obstacle for the supplement industry. The citizen petition was filed by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) last month, and requests that weight loss claims be considered disease claims. Essentially, the petition is asking the Food and Drug Association (FDA) to prevent dietary supplement products from claiming they can promote, assist or otherwise help in weight loss. Such claims, they say, should be considered as disease claims. The petition is hinged on the fact that although obesity is not a disease in itself, it is a significant risk factor for ailments like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. GSK currently sells the only FDA-approved over-the-counter weight-loss drug in the US. FDA is expected to respond to the petition within 180 days of receiving it.