Collaboration between Monash and Auckland Universities find obesity drug could treat severe acute diseases

Researchers from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (MIPS), in collaboration with researchers at the Surgical and Translational Research (STaR) Centre at the University of Auckland, have found that a common medication used to treat obesity could be re-purposed for the treatment of other diseases such as acute pancreatitis, severe infection and haemorrhagic shock.

The study - published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics - has uncovered that orlistat, a drug that works to reduce fat absorption in those with obesity, can be enhanced to treat other diseases.

Orlistat promotes weight loss by inhibiting the breakdown of dietary fats by pancreatic lipase in the intestines.


Existing research shows that its absorption from the intestine into the blood circulation is low. In the treatment of obesity this is not an issue as the drug works locally in the intestines to prevent dietary fat absorption. However, if orlistat’s absorption and uptake into lymph and blood could be improved it would be useful to treat other diseases resulting from increased pancreatic lipase activity in the lymph and blood such as acute diseases.

In the study, researchers from the Drug Delivery, Disposition and Dynamics Theme at MIPS, created a novel formulation, which was shown to enhance the uptake of orlistat into lymph and blood.

Lead researcher, Dr Natalie Trevaskis, and her team filed a provisional patent for their new formulation in late 2020, which shows great promise for the treatment of diseases including acute pancreatitis and the complication of acute lung injury.

Dr Trevaskis said that the findings show promise to treat diseases such as acute pancreatitis, sepsis and haemorrhagic shock in the future.

“The first step was identifying a novel formulation that can enhance the absorption of orlistat. We have demonstrated that the formulation is useful in reducing major organ dysfunction in acute pancreatitis models. Future work will demonstrate efficacy in other major diseases and hopefully progress to clinical trials.”

“We’re now seeking commercial partners to work with us on our new formulation. Our findings have significant opportunity. With further research, we could work to apply orlistat to treat cancers such as prostate or breast cancer.”

The study’s MIPS authors include Given Lee, Sifei Han, Zijun Lu, Christopher Porter and Natalie Trevaskis and the STaR Centre authors include John Windsor, Anthony Phillips and Jiwon Hong.

The study was funded by the New Zealand Health Research Council.