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Danish research is on the trail of the muscle pill

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Eat a pill and get bigger muscles. It sounds almost too good to be true. And it is – yet. But a research group led by Professor Simon Bekker-Jensen from the Centre for Healthy Ageing at the University of Copenhagen has come a step closer, a new study shows published in The EMBO Journal.

And it’s an “exciting study,” says Jean Farup, an associate professor of biomedicine at Aarhus University who was not part of the research team.

“Especially for frail elderly people, such advances in research are crucial, because we know that muscle strength and maintenance of bone muscles are fundamental for a good old age,” says the lecturer, whose research interests revolve around the body’s functions.

We’ll come back to the frail elderly.

Medical challenges

Medically, there is a challenge when it comes to activating ZAK-beta’s function. This is because it is more difficult to activate a protein or enzyme in the body than it is to inhibit it.

An example of a common drug that inhibits is beta blockers. They inhibit so-called Beta1 receptors in the heart. This reduces the heart rate if a person has a heart rhythm disorder.

However, Simon Bekker-Jensen says that intensive research is being done globally into medical solutions to activate proteins.

Turns on ZAK-beta protein

But first, we’d better get a handle on what Simon Bekker-Jensen and his colleagues have actually uncovered.

Precisely, it is the so-called ZAK-beta signalling protein that they have discovered.

ZAK-Beta has been shown to be an important part of the process that is activated when a muscle contracts, also known as muscle contraction.

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Imagine you’re showing off how strong you are to a friend, and you’re flexing and flexing your upper arm in classic Skipper Horror fashion.

Your biceps muscle towers like an oval hump.

This muscle contraction activates the ZAK-Beta protein, which then starts a chain reaction of a myriad of mechanisms in the muscle.

Among other things, muscle growth.

“We’ve long known about the many functions that start in muscles. Be it muscle growth, repair of muscles or improvement of muscle function. But this first link, the starting signal if you like, for all these functions to turn on, we haven’t known about until now,” says Simon Bekker-Jensen, elaborating over the phone:

“It’s been like finding a needle in a haystack. There are around 30,000 different proteins, each with its own function in the muscles. But only ZAK-Beta does exactly that.”

We also know from previous research that families with mutations in ZAK-Beta suffer from diseases that weaken the mass and strength of their muscles, explains Jean Farup in an explanatory comment.

Saving the elderly debilitated patient

But to return to the elderly debilitated patient, where muscle mass may already be low, this finding of ZAK-Beta protein is very important.

“For example, when the elderly fall and break a hip, it starts a vicious cycle. They have to lie or sit down for a long period of time, during which they lose muscle mass. And there is no guarantee that they will walk again,” says Simon Bekker-Jensen.

Loss of muscle mass

Loss of muscle mass is not something that suddenly happens to the elderly. In fact, you lose between 3 and 8 percent of muscle mass a year already from around the age of 30.

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Muscle strength also starts to decline around age 30 by about 0.5-1 percent a year.

But the adaptability of muscles to external stresses works throughout life. So the 70-year-old can be just as strong as a 30-year-old if training has been maintained throughout life.

Exercise can also keep bones strong. Read more in this article: Football gives 70-year-olds bones like 25-year-olds

Sources: ‘Ergonomics – Movement and work techniques‘ (2014), Simon Bekker-Jensen

“Because once the hip is healed, there may not be strength or mass left to get out and move the body again. A pill that activates the ZAK-beta protein would therefore be a huge step forward for this patient,” the professor explains.

However, Simon Bekker-Jensen won’t put a precise timeframe on when – if ever – you’ll be able to pull up the number at the pharmacy and be dispensed a muscle pill.

Already on the next trial

But Simon Bekker’s further research in ZAK-Beta is already under way.

“We are actually already working on the next phase of the research. And that includes overexpressing the ZAK-Beta gene in mice. That way we can verify that the protein works as we hope. But we’re also uncovering any side effects.”

However, it will take at least two years to make this genetic change in mice. So patience is needed, says Simon Bekker.

Jean Farup will also follow the development with great interest, especially in relation to the effect versus the side effect.

“As with all drugs in the early stages of research, you have to be sure that if you put pressure on ZAK-Beta, you won’t also create good conditions for cancer cells or inappropriate growth of heart cells,” concludes Jean Farup.

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Source: Simon Bekker-Jensen, pro.medicin.dk

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