North Carolina Central University researchers will be moving forward with a potential new drug to treat obesity, Type II diabetes and other metabolic diseases with help from a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The award from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases will allow NCCU Associate Professor Jonathan Sexton, Ph.D., and a team of university researchers to further develop molecules that target and activate a protein involved in energy metabolism known as AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK). 

“A drug that can activate AMPK will induce many of the positive benefits associated with physical activity, effectively acting as ‘exercise in a pill,’” said Sexton, who works at the university’s Biomanufacturing Research Institute and Technology Enterprise (BRITE). “It stimulates fatty acid oxidation and causes your metabolism to switch to burning fat.”

Harnessing the protein’s energy-regulating effects on the body could provide an effective treatment for millions of people with obesity, Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and other metabolic disorders. Potentially a “high reward” project, the project comes with a fair amount of risk, as well, Sexton said.

“Several large pharmaceutical companies have tried similar approaches and failed,” he added.

However, a new research technique developed in Sexton’s laboratory has delivered promising results. The novel technique was recently patented, and Curl Bio LLC, a startup biotechnology company, was recently founded by Sexton and Jay Brenman, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, to further develop this technology.

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