"If we can address what's wrong in this trigger mechanism, either triggering hunger or triggering satisfaction, then you'll have control of this disease," said Dr. John Grant, a surgeon specializing in obesity.
Claudette Akumador has lost ten pounds but says she needs to lose 30 more. She said she knows that extra pounds add up to serious health problems.
"It's very hard," she said. "I know what's facing me. I have a family history of diabetes and I do not want to get that later on in years."
Diabetes is just one of the dangerous side effects of being overweight.
Each year, 300,000 Americans die from obesity-related illnesses that cost this country $117 billion dollars annually. Which is why insurers are increasingly willing to pay for preventative treatments.
This means the potential for huge profits for whoever develops the magic bullet. One biotech company believes a drug called Axokine may be the answer. Researchers say it tricks the part of the brain that controls the urge to eat into wanting less food. In early trials, people lost about a pound a week — and didn't put it back on, even after going off the drug.
"You're left with a diminished set of signals that tells you to eat, so you don't have the urge to binge," said Dr. George Yancopolous, chief scientific officer for Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the maker of Axokine.
Even if all goes well, Axokine and other cutting-edge drugs now being developed won't be available for several years. And makers are painfully aware FDA approval doesn't ensure success. Remember Fen-Phen?
Once hailed as a miracle drug, it had to be pulled from the market when patients began experiencing heart trouble. And now Meridia is under the microscope after critics claim it offers little weight loss benefit, causes increased heart rates and blood pressure in patients and is tied to 28 deaths — a charge the drug's maker denies.
The complications, though, aren't slowing the research. Duke University's Dr. Sandy Williams led a team that recently managed to isolate the gene that grows muscles in mice. Which leads to hopes that one day, the benefits of pumping iron may be as simple as popping a pill.
Is this a long-term solution to the problems that we can't lead healthy lives on our own?
"I wouldn't put it that way," said Williams. "The discovery we made opens the door to where such a thing would not be science fiction."
Eye On America
Part 1: Why Are We So Fat?
Part 2: The Typical American Kid — Overweight