March 3, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

It’s no secret that obesity statistics are on the rise, and along with them the likelihood of many more people developing heart disease and diabetes. And while the late Anna Nicole Smith helped to popularize the diet pill in America, these pills are known for having side effects that can wreak havoc with one’s health.

In response to this dilemma, Israeli researcher Dr. Nir Barak has developed what could be a weight-loss wonder drug. Working with drug company Obecure, Barak has developed a new formulation called Histalean which is based on betahistine, an approved drug marketed worldwide for the treatment of vertigo. Betahistine has been available to health authorities for over 30 years and is therefore already FDA-approved.

Histalean has been found to quell the desire to consume fatty foods, particularly in women under the age of 50. The pill works by activating chemical agents that reduce appetite. The most recent double-blind placebo-controlled study included 281patients, men and women aged 18-65, with a BMI ranging from 30 to 40. This study revealed the effects of gender and age on the pill’s response.

Now, says Obecure CEO Dr. Yaffa Beck, studies of the drug will focus primarily on women under 50, since this approach seems to work best due to the presence of estrogen.

Barak is a physician in Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva and an instructor at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine. While one of Barak’s areas of expertise is internal medicine, he is also a US certified expert in clinical nutrition, which he practiced for two years in the University of Chicago Hospital.

“I treat people with obesity, and I also treat people who can’t eat anything and rely on intravenous feedings,” says Barak. “I see both ends of the spectrum.”

Barak explains that Histalean is unique in comparison to other diet pills because it focuses on the histamine system, which scientists associated for years with the immune system. It’s only recently that scientists began to connect the histamine system with dietary behavior, and Histalean is the only drug of its kind that has been tested safely on humans.

Barak also cautions that while he has high hopes for Histalean, there may be a long road ahead to developing an encompassing cure for obesity, because dietary behavior is more complex than it appears on the surface.

“I don’t think there’s one magic pill,” he says. “Every individual probably has a mixture of certain mechanisms that drive them to overeat… Once we have an arsenal of four or five drugs that work on different mechanisms, then we’ll be able to start managing people more efficiently when it comes to diet.”

Another area that excites Barak is the possibility that Histalean can prevent weight gain in schizophrenic patients who take the anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa. This powerful medication has significant results for schizophrenia, but also causes devastating weight gain in patients, to the extent that they may sometimes gain as much as a kilo per week. Histalean activates the same appetite-reducing chemicals which are blocked by Zyprexa, leading Barak to believe that Histalean can be developed to prevent this side effect of the drug.

“The patients are gaining weight to the degree that they develop diabetes,” says Barak. “This is really a very urgent problem. Schizophrenia is among the most debilitating diseases that there are-it affects every aspect of life.” Coping with this debilitating illness and obesity simultaneously can be a cruel ordeal for patients, who often opt to go off their medication or switch to an older medication which causes a Parkinson’s-like disease. “They would rather have Parkinson’s than be obese,” comments Barak.

This chance to ease the lives of people who are already under tremendous strain is attractive to Barak. “As a physician, it’s very appealing for me,” he says. “There’s a real need here to solve an urgent medical problem-a real problem, not a cosmetic one.”

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