Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good news for fat rats

'The pill that lets dieters eat what they like'. 'A pill which may 'lock in' the benefits of dieting...has been discovered by scientists'.
Point the first: the pill in question is alpha-lipoic acid, a dietary supplement that has been around for quite a while (here it is at drugstore.com; there's even a book about it which shows up 10th on the google search page if you type 'alpha lipoic acid' into the little box and press enter)(in case you don't care to follow the link, the book is called 'Alpha Lipoic Acid Breakthrough: The Superb Antioxidant That May Slow Aging, Repair Liver Damage, and Reduce the Risk of Cancer, Heart Disease, and Diabetes' and it was published in 1998).
Point the second: the study in question was conducted on rats. The researchers divided the rats into a number of groups - some on supplemented calorie controlled diets, some on unsupplemented versions of the same; some on unrestricted supplemented diets, some on unrestricted unsupplemented diets; they also changed the conditions during the study, taking some rats off the unrestricted unsupplemented diets and putting them on the calorie controlled supplemented diets; taking others off the calorie controlled unsupplemented diets and putting them on supplemented unrestricted diet - and this is where the story comes in. The rats in the latter condition were found to live as long as those who had been on the calorie controlled unsupplemented diet from the beginning (calorie controlled diets have an association with longevity in rats*). Conclusion: the extended survival benefits of the calorie restricted condition persisted in the unrestricted supplemented condition. Final word (in the study):
whether this compound would induce similar effects on survival in other species used as model organisms to study ageing is not known

Point the third: (from The Independent)
Simply adding the supplement to the diet has no effect. It seems that alpha-lipoic acid fools the body into behaving as if it was still on whatever diet it was following before the supplement was added. We found there was an anti-obesity effect as well. Although weight does rise when you come off the restricted diet, if you take alpha-lipoic acid, even though you are eating normally again you still have a reduced weight

said Professor. Goyns.
'You', indeed. 'You', the rat?
Point the fourth: The print version of this article ends on this note, although it does point out that the research was conducted on rats. The online version, however, includes some words from Goyns' co-author, Brian Merry:
It is an unusual and interesting finding and it needs repeating in further research. That was as far as I was prepared to go, but Malcolm [Goyns] wanted to apply it to humans. I said I didn't agree with his interpretation and we had to wait for further studies.

People have been buying this stuff and taking it for years as a dietary supplement. I don't think anyone knows what its effect is. There have only been two studies in rats and mice [before our study].

Interestingly, Goyns is director of Immorgene Concepts, and has a book to flog at the moment, while his two co-authors, Brian Merry and Austin Kirk, simply work for the school of Biological Sciences at the University of Liverpool.

Point the fifth: Why was the most significant part of the article, namely Merry's response, left out of the Irish print version of this story?

Point the sixth: What, exactly, is Malcolm Goyns's game? He does have an actual academic post, at the University of Sunderland, a fact which makes his exaggeration of his own research particularly egregious.

Update: hmm, can't be quite sure Professor Goyns is actually employed by the University of Sunderland, as he doesn't show up on their staff pages, although he has collaborated on research with people who do.

*see e.g. Fontana & Klein, JAMA, 2007;297:986-994. Academic login required.

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