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FAT-MELTING DRUG? NAME YOUR PRICE

How much would you pay for a drug that melted fat, calmed a savage appetite and replaced dimpled sag with youthful lean? What's it worth to shrink from a size 18 to a 6, from a 52-inch belt to a svelte 34, without ever breaking a sweat?

The answer: A great deal. A very great deal.Experts in the field say that in America, the sky is the limit. People deplore fat bodies, particularly their own. Thin is in.

"This one is going to be astronomical," said one obesity specialist.

Phones started ringing in fat clinics all over the country last week after three studies published in the journal Science reported that injections of a protein called leptin caused abnormally fat mice to lose up to 30 percent of their weight within weeks. The rodents also ate less and exercised more.

When Amgen Inc., a California pharmaceutical firm that bought rights to the protein, said it would be tested on humans in about a year, volunteers quickly fell in line.

"We've recorded more than a thousand calls from people asking to get into the study," said Amgen spokeswoman Lynne Connell.

So many people were calling Amgen that the company installed a special phone line. The same thing happened at Rockefeller University, where Howard Hughes Institute researcher Jeffrey M. Friedman first cloned the OB gene that makes leptin and then isolated the protein itself.

"It's still very, very early (in the research)," said Marion Glick, a Rockefeller spokeswoman. "We're not trying to recruit patients. But I think it's clear that people would really love to have something that works."

Connell said Amgen has yet to prove the safety of the protein, much less put a price on its eventual use.

But others in the fat industry are already talking about it.

"The potential is astronomical," said Dr. Arthur Frank, medical director of a George Washington University obesity treatment center that has been swamped with calls from eager heavyweights. "How much would they be willing to pay? You can almost pick a number."

"The sky is the limit," said Adam Drownowski, a professor of psychiatry who treats eating disorders at the University of Michigan. "People have been looking for a magic bullet for obesity. And you can bet it is going to be very expensive."

About a third of Americans are overweight. They spend $30 billion a year to sweat, strain and starve in an unending, relentless pursuit of the body lean. Whole industries are built around the U.S. obsession to assassinate unwanted fat cells.

And yet, despite it all, statistically, most efforts fail. The lost pounds usually are found again.

Such disappointment may be in store for many if and when leptin hits the market.

The safety of the protein is still an unknown and Friedman himself said that weight manipulation with the hormone should be approached carefully.

"There appeared to be no side effects," he said, "but my instinct is to be cautious. We now have to prove that the hormone is safe."

Some overdosed mice have starved to death on leptin. And still other types of mice are not even affected.

This suggests that if leptin is ever proven safe, it may not be a magic bullet for everyone, says Steven Hotzman of Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., firm that has isolated a fat gene, called TUB, as in "tubby."