Had you tuned into a discussion of fighting fat 10 years ago, you'd have read about DHEA, a marvelous, naturally occurring hormone that fights cancer, memory loss, infection and fat -- at least in lab animals. Unfortunately, DHEA, formally dehydroepiandrosterone, failed as a factor in the flab fight.
The chemical, unfortunately, is raw material for sex hormones, and can raise the level of testosterone. That can put beards on women's faces or, in men, promote prostate cancer.
But some researchers have continued trying to exploit DHEA's many intriguing tricks. Henry Lardy, chairman emeritus of the Enzyme Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has looked at dozens of DHEA metabolites -- breakdown products. He's isolated one that could have many of DHEA's benefits, without being converted into sex hormones.
Lardy zeroed in a compound with the cumbersome name 3-acetyl-7-oxo-dehydroepiandrosterone -- he calls it 7-oxo DHEA -- and found that it could indeed cut weight in fat animals, and improve memory as well.
Unlike DHEA, which is the most common hormone in the blood of a young adult, 7-oxo DHEA is not found in the blood of adults, although it is produced in the kidneys.
And while DHEA raised blood levels of testosterone in women as much as 10 times above normal, 7-oxo DHEA does not significantly affect levels of sex hormones.
The compound has passed toxicity tests, which looked at enzymes in the liver and blood hormone levels, and shown itself to be "completely innocuous," Lardy says. "No-one has found any adverse side effects."
What does 7-oxo do? There are signs that it mimics thyroid hormone, which causes the body to make more heat, thus burning more calories without really doing anything.
An early clinical trial published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online looked at 30 obese people who took either a placebo or 7-KETO, a commercial version of 7-oxo that's sold as a food supplement.
Both groups took three one-hour sessions of aerobic and anaerobic exercise per week. At the end of the eight-week study, the 7-KETO group had lost 1.8 percent of body fat, compared to 0.57 percent among the placebo exercisers. Their overall weight loss was 2.88 kilos, about three times the loss among those who took the placebo.
That's a preliminary study, and hardly reason to jump out and buy the stuff. Lardy, who notes that the University of Wisconsin signed over patent rights to the compound, says he would have preferred that it be introduced as a prescription drug rather than a food supplement, but that the supplement maker does not have the money for a large clinical trial.
If 7-oxo is promising, Lardy indicates that even better compounds are lurking in the wings. "We found [7-oxo] on the pathway to the active hormone, but it's not the active hormone." While 7-oxo is more powerful than DHEA, the active hormone might be yet more potent -- if and when it's isolated. Indeed, we should be speaking in the plural here. "DHEA has so many effects," Lardy says, "that it's not likely that a single hormone would have all those effects."
How harmful is obesity, anyway?