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D.iet & H.ealth : B.ody W.eight Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Researchers develop promising anti-obesity vaccine
By Kathy Jones
Aug 1, 2006, 15:49

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1 Aug, ( - A vaccine that fights obesity may sound too good to be true, but US researchers have developed a vaccine that prevents weight gain in laboratory mice. This successful experiment leads to a hope that human anti-obesity vaccine may be a reality one day.

The vaccine targets ghrelin, a hormone, which decreases energy expenditure and fat breakdown. Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California said that they have discovered a way through which the immune system is tricked into attacking ghrelin. Rats injected with this vaccine lost weight even while eating normally, the researchers said.

Ghrelin was discovered in 1999. This hormone holds the key to either losing weight or maintaining it. Ghrelin is responsible for regulating appetite and energy metabolism.

So when people try to cut calories to lose weight, the levels of ghrelin increase in the body and thus maintain existing fat stores. When eating returns to normal, levels of ghrelin also decrease.

Essentially ghrelin is the body's shield against starvation. Ever since ghrelin was found to play a key role in weight regulation, researchers have tried to manipulate it to suit the needs of the body. They met with limited success until the present study.

The research team led by Kim Janda at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, tricked the immune system into believing that ghrelin was a foreign body. The immune system reacted by attacking ghrelin in much the same manner as it does to any bacteria.

"And so what we had to do was make molecules such that the immune system was in a sense tricked into recognizing ghrelin as being foreign, and thus bind to it and not allow it to get to the central nervous system and get to the hypothalamus where it can impart its properties," Janda explained.

Mice injected with the vaccine ate just as much as untreated mice but had "about a 20 or 30 percent reduction in weight gain," the researchers said. But the key point to note is that the mice given the shots were fed low-fat, low-energy diets. It's not clear if the vaccine would work in the fatty diet normally consumed by obese Americans.

The Scripps researchers added that their effort against ghrelin was not the only one. Cytos, a Swiss-based biotechnology company, has already made another product, which is being currently tested. However the mechanism is quite different as this anti-obesity vaccine prevents the uptake of ghrelin by the brain.

The researchers said that there was still a lot of work to be done before the obesity vaccine will be tried in humans. "We're going to look at some different flavors of antibodies, see how they work, and then try them in animals," Janda said of the study published in the journal proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"We want to do real basic work and make sure we do all our homework before we look at it in humans. We could do it quickly, but it's prudent to know exactly what's going on."

The percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese has been on a steady rise over the last 25 years. Sedentary lifestyle practices are the main reason behind this problem, which has been termed as an epidemic by the World Health Organization in 1997.

Obesity brings with it a lot of associated problems like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. With more than 64 percent of American population either overweight or obese, the problem of controlling the bulge will occupy researchers over the next few years.

It is already recognized that obesity is a multi-factorial condition, meaning that just eating huge amounts of food does not make a person fat. Other influences like the quality of life and even genes play a major role. But the increasing rates of obesity will increase what are termed as "lifestyle diseases."

Attempts to control or treat fat include the development of a unique fat-busting laser beam that originates from a machine called a free-electron laser (FEL).

The current study promises to add another weapon against fat - a vaccine. However there are no guarantees into how the vaccine may work or how it would be administered. "It depends on what kind of vaccine it is," Janda said. "It could be given just once or it could be multiple shots."

"Whether active immunization against ghrelin would help prevent the development of obesity because of energy-dense, palatable, high-fat Western diets or would facilitate weight loss once obesity is established is uncertain," he added.

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