This TV news segment discussed a different type of intervention being studied as a possible means to help people manage obesity. It is about the potential for a vaccine against a protein called ghrelin to treat or prevent obesity. While being clear about the experimental nature of the vaccine being studied, the story did not contain much in the way of information about how the vaccine might be effective, how it might be used clinically, or potential side effects that could occur when priming the immune system to react against a hormone normally produced by the body. While illustrating that scientists are exploring a variety of means to help people combat excess weight, the story did little to help the viewer think about strategies that might be applicable for weight management.
This story should have focused more on the uncharted waters of vaccination against normal physiologic processes in the body. The potential for unwanted side effects is huge.
There was no estimate for the costs that might be associated with a vaccine for weight management. The story did mention that the vaccine currently being tested in humans might require regular inoculation to be effective in contrast to the vaccine in the rats which might only require a single injection early in life. That could introduce a significant cost factor.
The story failed to mention whether the difference in weight between the treated and untreated groups was significant, how long the difference in weight lasted, whether there were any gender differences in the effect, whether the age at which the animals were treated made a difference, whether this was equally effective in different genotypes, and whether the particular strain of rats studied had a propensity for diet-induced weight gain. These were important omissions.
Typical vaccines work to boost immunity and help the body fend off infections by organisms that are foreign to our bodies. In this case, scientists are working on a vaccine that will promote the immune system to attack a hormone that is normally produced in the gut to control appetite. It would seem that there would be at least some risk of triggering unwanted side effects in the gut. There was absolutely no mention of possible harms that might be associated with developing an immune reaction to a hormone normally produced by the body.
This story is about animal research on a vaccine, with brief mention of a study in a small group of people in Switzerland. The evidence reported on is from an early release of a research paper to be published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The story was clear that this was early animal research that required a lot more work.
The graphics that go along with this story committed disease mongering by immediately mixing statistics about how many Americans are overweight and “clinically obese.” There is a difference in the two categories. Does the story mean to convey that this vaccine would be for all people in either category or maybe for all people concerned about weight? That certainly is the implication from the line: “Well what if someday in the future you could get a shot that protected you from obesity?”
The principal investigator of the rat research on the vaccine for obesity was interviewed for this story. A clinician, expert in the field of obesity treatment, was also interviewed for this story.
The story mentioned diet and exercise as tools for weight loss, as well as the $33 billion a year spent on weight loss products.
The story was about work in rats, and mentioned a test in human subjects in Switzerland. At several points in the story, there was mention that in terms of a therapy for people, it is still too early in the process to know whether it will have an effect in people. Still, the sensational lead-in swung the other way when it said: “Get one shot and suddenly you have less appetite? There could be one on the way.”
This story is about a vaccination against the hormone ghrelin as a means of managing weight. Targeting a normal human process with a vaccine as a means of treating a condition is a novel approach.
The interviews for this story demonstrate that a press release was not the sole source of information.