Researchers have isolated a protein in mice muscle cells that trigger the same health benefits as exercise.

Irisin, a hormone used by the researchers at the Harvard University Medical School, was injected into sedentary mice that were obese and prediabetic. The protein was shown to activate genes that convert white fat into “good” brown fat, which burns more calories than exercise alone.

And while irisin doesn’t build muscle and can’t replace exercise, it acts as a chemical messenger and may eventually be used to develop new treatments for diabetes, obesity and possibly cancer, said senior study author Bruce Spiegelman, a cell biologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and a professor of cell biology at the medical school.

In results published online Jan. 11 in the journal Nature, irisin was also found to improve glucose tolerance in mice that received a high-fat diet. After 10 days of treatment with the protein, the mice had better-controlled blood sugar and insulin levels, preventing the onset of diabetes and helping them to lose excess weight.

Scientists are quick to point out that research involving animals often fails to produce similar results in humans, but researchers say it’s possible that within the next couple of years, an irisin-based drug could be ready for human trials.

“It’s exciting to find a natural substance connected to exercise that has such clear therapeutic potential,” said study first author Dr. Pontus Bostrom, a postdoctoral fellow in the Spiegelman lab.