Newswise — Clinical trials started in December 2010 to determine how well an anti-obesity compound derived from a Chinese herb works in humans.

South Dakota State University researcher Gareth Davies, the scientific director for the Avera Institute for Human Behavioral Genetics in Sioux Falls, said collaborators from SDSU and Avera have published several articles about the compound, which they call AIHBG-10. Davies, until now an associate professor in SDSU’s Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, will leave his university post as of Jan. 1 to concentrate solely on his work with Avera. He remains an adjunct associate professor at South Dakota State.

“We studied a natural product used extensively in Chinese medicine to treat obesity,” Davies said. “We showed that we can use this compound to stop the development of fat cells and to change the gene expression in these cells and basically prevent them developing from a pre-fat cell to a fat cell. We studied the response in cell lines and in animals, and now Avera is beginning a clinical trial in humans.”

Davies noted that the compound may have possible applications in treating side effects resulting from some medications.

“We found this compound is very, very useful for reducing the obesity associated with anti-pyschotic treatment,” Davies said. “We have a lot of individuals, bipolar and schizophrenic individuals, who are on anti-psychotic drugs. One of the severe side effects is a phenomenal weight gain. Many times this leads to noncompliance with medication because the individuals are suffering so much weight gain.”

A second clinical trial beginning in early 2011 will use the anti-obesity compound in individuals who are being treated with anti-psychotic drugs in order to determine how well it reduces the weight gains associated with such treatments.

Avera and SDSU have filed a patent for the anti-obesity compound. With the help of South Dakota Innovation Partners, an early stage venture capital firm, the scientists involved have also formed a start-up company to work to develop the technology.

Davies credits his former doctoral student at SDSU, Yueshan Hu, with taking an important role in the research. Hu, who graduated in 2010, was named graduate student of the year in SDSU’s College of Pharmacy. He’s now a postdoctoral fellow with Davies’ lab at the Avera Institute for Human Behavioral Genetics and remains involved in the anti-obesity research.

Hu is a certified herbalist and was an assistant professor of traditional Chinese medicine in Guangzhou University in his native China.

“Some of the herbal combinations really have fantastic effects,” Hu said, “but we don’t know the mechanism. We don’t know why.”

Hu said his doctoral work at South Dakota State University and now his postdoctoral work with the Avera Institute for Human Behavioral Genetics has given him the opportunity to begin unraveling some of those mechanisms in the laboratory.

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Phytotherapy Research (Vol. 24, Issue 12, December 2010); Fitoterapia (Vol. 81, Issue 5, July 2010); Fitoterapia (Vol. 81, Issue 4, June 2010); Phytomedicine (Vol. 16, Issue 9, September 2009)