Fighting fat and curing obesity may not be such big problems in the near future. A new study has found that dirt — yes, actual dirt — could be a possible cure for what is considered the "modern-day health epidemic."

A study conducted by the University of South Australia (UniSA) that investigated the effect of clay materials on drug delivery was the source of this unexpected discovery. Tahnee Dening, a UniSA and Ph.D. candidate, learned that clay materials have the surprising ability to reduce fat droplets in the gut by soaking them up.

Dening had been investigating how clay materials could improve the oral delivery and absorption of antipsychotic drugs, but during this study, she noticed that the clay particles were behaving in an unexpected manner.

The dirt materials attracted fat droplets and soaked them up into their particle structure instead of what she expected them to do, which was break down to release the drugs they were supposed to deliver. According to Dening, the clay they used also had the surprising side effect of keeping fat from being absorbed back into the body and ensuring that it is passed through the digestive system.

"It's this unique behaviour that immediately signaled we could be onto something significant — potentially a cure for obesity," Dening said.

Specifically, Dening's research aimed to determine the effects of montmorillonite, a natural clay material purified from dirt, and laponite, a synthetic clay, in rats fed with high-fat diet.

She and her team pitted them against a placebo and a leading weight loss drug, orlistat. After two weeks of monitoring, she discovered that the clay material delivered better weight loss effects than orlistat and the engineered clay formulations.

According to Dening, they are now looking to create a synergistic approach to curing obesity with both clay and orlistat. Clay has a huge capacity to soak up fats that come from various foods people eat, while orlistat blocks up to 30 percent of dietary fat digestion and absorption.

However, many people stop taking orlistat after a while since it has unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea and bloating. But if the researchers could combine the positive effects of the two and remove the negative ones, this could beat what the market has now.

UniSA Professor Clive Prestidge, Dening's research supervisor, revealed the findings of the study has already attracted interested parties, particularly potential investors.

"With a finding like this, people will naturally be keen to find out when they can try it," Professor Prestidge said. "Given that the material is generally considered safe and is widely used in food and nutraceutical products, it is feasible that human clinical trials could start reasonably soon."

Obesity can lead to several and usually serious health conditions. These include heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has revealed that almost two out of three adults and one in four children nowadays are overweight or obese, Science Daily has learned.

At this rate, half of the world's population could be suffering from obesity by 2030. Thus, it is no surprise that Dening's research has attracted attention as potential safe cures for obesity will likely increase in demand in the future.