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'Exercise in a pill' still needs a workout

News that scientists have developed a drug that mimics the benefits of exercise -- in mice, anyway -- quickly rose to the top of numerous websites today.

"We have exercise in a pill," Ron Evans (pictured), an author of a study on the drug called AICAR said in an Associated Press story. "With no exercise, you can take a drug and chemically mimic it." Evans, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, is one of a team of scientists who first reported the findings in an article posted on the website of the journal Cell.

But, as the AP report states, the drug's impact on humans is still unknown:

Sedentary mice that took the drug for four weeks burned more calories and had less fat than untreated mice. And when tested on a treadmill, they could run about 44 percent farther and 23 percent longer than untreated mice.

Just how well those results might translate to people is an open question. But someday, researchers say, such a drug might help treat obesity, diabetes and people with medical conditions that keep them from exercising.

Evans said his team has already developed detection tests for use by the World Anti-Doping Agency to head off any athletes who may be looking for an edge.

A story posted on the Wired website included some skepticism from Darrell Neufer, a professor of sports medicine specializing in cellular energy systems at East Carolina University. "It's going to be nearly impossible to create a pill that will mimic all the benefits that exercise has," Neufer said.

Neufer cited a 2000 paper by BYU and Washington University scientists that, he said, showed the drug the Salk Institute scientists used "does not fully mimic the adaptive response to exercise."

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