Can a Vaccine Treat Your Beer Gut?
By Mark Borden

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Imagine receiving a "fat shot" to prevent obesity--the same way you get a flu shot to prevent influenza. Farfetched? Not according to a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity. The report details how animals exposed to a human virus substantially increased their total body fat, and raises the possibility that some obesity in humans is caused by a virus that could be treated with a vaccine. Microorganisms are topical in medical research these days--they've been found to contribute to ulcers--but this is the first suggestion of a link between a virus and human obesity.

Don't expect a miracle cure soon: Much to the chagrin of people who would like a cure for being overweight, biotech and pharmaceuticals companies haven't flooded the study's authors with research grants. "I think [our study] is pretty low on their radar," says Dr. Richard Atkinson of the University of Wisconsin. Atkinson says that his research is being discounted because he is unable to test his theory on humans. "We've inoculated chickens, mice, and monkeys [with the virus], and they all get fat," says Atkinson. "But we can never prove it in humans since we would have to inject them with the virus. I haven't had any volunteers for that." Lacking that evidence, major corporate funding won't be imminent, says Bob Kirby, a pharmaceuticals analyst at Edward Jones. Even with the proper funding, a vaccine would take at least a decade to gain FDA approval, Atkinson says.

Of course, the study does not claim that a virus is the only cause of obesity. Genetics, diet, lack of physical activity, and other behavior are all reasons that 55% of the U.S. adult population is overweight. But treating a virus would be appealingly straightforward. "For an infectious disease, we can make vaccines. It's conceivable we can get antiviral agents for people who are already infected," says Atkinson. Just don't expect a shot in the arm to reduce that beer gut anytime soon.

--Mark Borden