Researchers at the University of Iowa believe a natural substance found in blueberries, cranberries, pears and apple peels could help reduce obesity and its associated health problems.

U-I associate professor of internal medicine Christopher Adams says the substance known as ursolic acid protected mice from obesity by increasing the amount of muscle and brown fat – two tissues recognized for their calorie-burning properties.

“We also looked at food intake or calories eaten and ursolic acid did not decrease the amount of calories taken in, it actually increased it. But, because the mice had a higher energy expenditure, they were resistant to obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease.”

The U-I team studied mice on a high-fat diet over a period of several weeks. Half of the mice also received ursolic acid. There was no difference in activity between the two groups, but the ursolic acid treated mice gained less weight and their blood sugar level remained near normal.

It remains unclear if ursolic acid will do the same for humans, but Adams is hoping to find out. He’s partnered with Mike Walsh in the creation of a company they’re calling Emmyon. “We recruited a really great pharmaceutical chemist named John Talley, who discovered Celebrex and several other FDA approved drugs, and he’s going to help us develop ursolic acid as a drug. We’ll test it, make sure it’s safe and see if it works in people,” Adams said.

About one in five American adults develop obesity-related fatty liver disease. Adams’ study found ursolic acid-treated mice failed to develop the currently untreatable condition.