Wide Field Looking to Trim Weight

American bellies coast to coast are still bulging from turkey and stuffing post-Thanksgiving. In other words, it's a lot like any other day of the year -- just add sweet-potato casserole and pumpkin pie.

Eating, after all, is fun. Diets, not so much, and exercise -- let's face it -- is flat-out work. The problem with this is that a few hundred unneeded calories a day, gigantic portion sizes and years of being chained to a desk have a way of making people think the bathroom scale must be broken and that their walls are hung with fun-house mirrors.

Of course, being overweight isn't simply a result of poor dietary habits and physical inactivity for everyone, because genetics can play a role, too. The good news is there are options, both for those looking to shed excess weight and for investors hoping to add some heft to their accounts.

Already several medical treatments for fighting obesity are on the market or in trials, and for some people, surgery is being welcomed as a quick way to slim down after diet and exercise have failed.

As obesity rates rise, and with Americans spending $33 billion a year on weight-loss measures, according to the National Institutes of Health, it's no wonder the number of firms grabbing for a share of the market seems to be growing.

Benefit From Broadening

Among the multiple devices that are available, sales of the BioEnterics Lap-Band, a gastric band designed to restrict stomach size, quadrupled between 2001 and 2004, according to Inamed ( IMDC), its maker. Shares of the Santa Barbara, Calif., company were recently at $83.15, compared with a price of around $15 before the 2001 launch of the device.

Granted, Inamed has additional factors contributing to the stock price -- namely hopes it will get a silicone-gel breast implant approved for cosmetic use in the U.S. and the fact that it's being chased by two suitors -- but it still started 2005 around $63.

Over the summer, Minneapolis-based Medtronic ( MDT), the largest maker of medical devices for the heart, acquired a small company called Transneuronix for its Transcend stomach stimulator. The device is built to distend the stomach and convince the brain that it's full. The Transcend is currently in trials and could be on the market as early as the first half of next year.

Another big heart device company, St. Jude Medical ( STJ), plans to buy Advanced Neuromodulation Systems ( ANSI), whose offerings include an experimental device to treat obesity. The product uses electrical stimulation, but Advanced wouldn't comment on the device or the progress of its development. As of Wednesday, St. Jude already owned 89% of the company.

Even with the forays into the weight-loss field, Medtronic and St. Jude have mainly been focused on heart-failure devices, which obviously treat a condition that carries a more immediate risk of death.

"If you need a defibrillator, you need it today," says John Putnam of Stanford Financial Group. "It's not like obesity, where you need to lose some weight, but over a period of time."

Should the experimental gastric stimulators prove effective, Inamed's Lap-Band market would be an obvious target for both Medtronic and St. Jude, according to Jason Wittes of biotech research firm Leerink Swann. Implanting a gastric stimulator, similar to putting a pacemaker in a patient, would be less invasive than inserting the band, he says. Additionally, he says the stimulation products might even be used in a broader set of patients.

Not Just Skin Deep

While about one-third of the U.S. population is considered obese, about 5% of the population -- a small number of whom have the band implanted -- is morbidly obese, or more than 100 pounds overweight, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Inamed's gastric band itself could soon be the property of another firm, as both Medicis ( MRX) and Allergan ( AGN) are bidding for the company.

Few companies are placing all their bets on the obesity market, but several biotechs are working on diseases that can be caused by being overweight, such as diabetes and cancer.

For instance, OSI Parmaceuticals ( OSIP), best known for marketing the cancer drug Tarceva with Genentech ( DNA), has a subsidiary focused on obesity and diabetes called Prosidion. The division is developing drugs that target the high blood-sugar levels that contribute to the diseases.

Another company, Myriad Genetics ( MYGN), has discovered a gene linked to an overeating disorder called hyperphagia and early onset obesity. The latter dramatically increases one's risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, a condition that's growing in proportion with cases of obesity.

Nastech Pharmaceutical ( NSTK) has jumped into the field with its recent acquisition of certain patents from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to support an investigational nasal spray for obesity.

The spray contains a hormone that regulates appetite control, and it's currently in three early-stage trials on its safety and tolerability. If it's ultimately successful, the drug will be marketed by Merck ( MRK).

Meanwhile, Icoria ( ICOR), a company with a $10 million market capitalization that trades on the over-the-counter Bulletin Board, has also heard the calling of the obesity market.

Originally focused on agriculture under the name Paradigm Genetics, Icoria sold off its plant research unit to focus on developing obesity and diabetes treatments. The company has agreed to be acquired by Clinical Data ( CLDA), a blood products and services company.

Wittes says other companies may eventually broaden the field, perhaps makers of neurostimulation devices such as Cyberonics ( CYBX) and Boston Scientific's ( BSX) Advanced Bionics, though neither company has made any announcements to that effect. At any rate, as with ordinary weight-loss techniques, only time will tell if the new crop of obesity fighters can keep the weight off.

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