Researchers at UT Southwestern may have discovered a method of safely mimicking the weight-loss benefits of a plant compound, according to Science Daily.

The compound called Celastrol holds critical answers to developing therapies for obesity despite its harmful side effects. It is derived from the root extracts of a white-flowered plant in China.

Celastrol has been gaining a lot of attention in recent years after research showed that it can prevent as well as reverse obesity in mice.

However, the compounds can cause high blood pressure and lethargy in mice so the researchers conducted a study to understand how it works in order to develop safe weight-loss treatments.

They found that celastrol needs a specific protein in a neuron that influences metabolism. And they realized that they can mimic a “fed” signal to mouse brains by deleting this protein from the neurons. This resulted in mice losing 7% of their body weight in two weeks despite being a fed high-fat diet, per Science Daily.

Study author Dr. Kevin Williams said, “This new understanding of how celastrol works on the cellular level opens more possibilities for targeting pathways that can improve our metabolism without the negative health impact”

“We haven’t uncovered all the cell populations that influence weight loss,” he added, “but each of these findings brings us closer to developing effective, safe therapies for obesity.”

The study mainly focused on a class of cells in the brain called POMC neurons that are associated with reduced appetite, lower blood sugar levels, and higher energy burning when activated.

Dr. Williams and his team found this neuron plays a key role in how celastrol impacts weight loss.

He said, “The mice were leaner and had the same activity levels; they didn’t appear lethargic, sickly or ill. But this is through observation only. Further study is needed to verify how targeting this pathway may be influencing their cardiovascular systems and other functions.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cautions people against using celastrol, which is also called a thunder god vine used in traditional Chinese medicine.

Extracts from the plant are sold as weight-loss supplements. However, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has posted cautionary statements saying researchers have no sufficient data about the safety and efficacy of celastrol.

The compound has given the researcher some important insight into how safer strategies for weight loss may be developed in the lab. For instance, in the new study, deleting PERK from the POMC neurons blocked about half the food intake-reducing effect of celastrol, according to Science Daily.

Dr. Williams said, “This indicates there are other cell populations for celastrol’s effects on metabolism besides POMC.”

“We’ll continue mapping the roles of these cell types until we have a fuller picture of the complex network of pathways,” he added. “One day, perhaps, this knowledge may contribute to the development of more effective therapeutics in the treatment of obesity and diabetes.”