By Heidi Hall | The Tennessean
A biotechnology company launched through the University of Tennessee began marketing a new diet aid Wednesday, a pill purported to burn an hour's worth of calories with 15 minutes of exercise.
From his first inkling that the amino acid leucine may hold the key to increased weight loss, it took Dr. Michael Zemel five years to put his product, NuShape, on the market. His company's website, NuSirt.com, launched Wednesday morning.
NuShape combines leucine and vitamin B6 to encourage fat to release some of its calories and direct those to muscles, where they're burned, Zemel said. His research was published in the June edition of the journal Nutrients.
The supplement's producer, NuSirt Sciences Inc., is based in Nashville with laboratories in Knoxville. Zemel retired from the university two months ago so he could devote all his time to its launch.
Tennessee generally lags in getting products out of university labs and into the market. A recent list from the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based group devoted to entrepreneurship, ranked the state 41st in jobs created from research dollars.
The state ranks eighth in number of research dollars it attracts - $2.5 billion last year.
NuSirt is a success story, said Dave Washburn, vice president of the University of Tennessee Research Foundation. The foundation produced four companies out of the university in fiscal year 2011, he said. It produced 10 in fiscal year 2012.
The school will make money from NuSirt through upfront licensing fees, royalties and an equity stake.
"Historically, Tennessee has been in the lower half of all the 50 states at getting technology out, but I believe it's changing," Washburn said. "I believe the current administration in Nashville is putting together a great platform of things to help ignite more technology commercialization."
Clinical trials of NuShape showed subjects who both cut calories and took the pill lost double the weight of those who cut calories and took a placebo. Subjects who just took the drug -- but didn't change their lifestyle -- lost fat but did not lose weight.
"There is no magic in weight management. I wish I had a product where that was the case," Zemel said. "You have to do something. Then we can leverage your efforts. The purpose is to help you begin to burn a few extra calories."
On tap from NuSirt are products for pre-diabetes and diabetes, inflammatory stress and cardiovascular health, Zemel said.
Month's supply $40
A month's supply of NuShape sells for $40 and is only available online and through health-care practitioners, but Zemel said there are plans to sell the product in retail stores soon.
Zemel is perhaps best known for finding a link between calcium intake and weight loss, which he patented in 2002. The dairy industry picked up the research and used it in advertising campaigns.
People who want to lose weight need to do one thing first -- talk to their doctors, said Pam Davis, director of the Center for the Treatment of Obesity at Centennial Medical Center.
She wouldn't comment on whether NuShape will work, but pointed out many other weight-loss supplements have come and gone from store shelves.
"Whether you have 5 pounds, 50 pounds or 500 pounds to lose, if it sounds too good to be true, it is," Davis said.
"If you want to be able to move the number on the scale, and have it be a long-lasting move, you need to have a comprehensive plan in place for that."
Because it is a supplement, NuShape did not need a pre-evaluation from the Food and Drug Administration to be sold. Some of NuSirt's future products will, Zemel said.
Other companies have seen recent success getting FDA approval for weight-loss drugs.
In July, the FDA cleared the pill Qsymia for adults who are obese or overweight and have at least one weight-related condition such as high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol. The drug is actually a combination of two older drugs: phentermine and topirimate.
The FDA approved Belviq in late June for adults who are obese or are overweight with at least one medical complication. It was the first FDA approval of a new drug for long-term weight loss in 13 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Heidi Hall at 615-726-5977 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @HeidiHallTN.