Is Obesity Catching?
Oh, boy. This obesity research stuff just gets more and more interesting. Did you know there’s research suggesting that there may actually be an obesity virus?
Yep, you read it right. Meet adenovirus-36, one of a family of adenoviruses with about 50 members. Most of these nasty little specks of genetic material cause colds, diarrhea, or pinkeye, but lab animals infected with adenovirus-36 ended up, after several months, with more than twice as much fat as control animals! Interestingly, they only weighed an average of 7% more; a clear reminder that weight is not always a good measure of fat – these rats may not have weighed that much more than their uninfected lab mates, but they were a whole lot flabbier.
The researchers then looked for adenovirus-36 in humans, and found that a much higher percentage of overweight people were infected with the virus than were lean folks – about 30% of overweight people carry adenovirus-36, as compared to only 11% of the lean population. Similarly, 30% of obese people have the adenovirus-36 antibody, while only 5% of lean people have it.
While it is not known how the virus causes fat gain, it is clear that the infected lab animals were not eating more than the control animals. Some effect on metabolism is posited, but more research is needed. Too, the virus actually caused more fat cells to be manufactured. It’s been clear for a long time that obese people have more fat cells than lean people, rather than simply having fuller fat cells. This is one way those extra fat cells are created.
In an interesting anomaly, the virus also decreased blood cholesterol and triglycerides, exactly the opposite of what we often see in the obese human population. Other than fat gain and a shift in blood work, the only effect of adenovirus-36 appeared to be a couple of days of cold-like symptoms.
Does this mean that carb intolerance isn’t the cause of obesity? I’m not a research scientist (nor do I play one on television), but I can hazard a guess, and say it’s not the cause, but it’s a cause. First of all, it was only 30% of overweight human subjects who tested positive for the virus; that leaves a whole lot of overweight that needs another explanation. Secondly, who’s to say that adenovirus-36 doesn’t do some of its dirty work by messing up carbohydrate metabolism? There’s just too little known yet about this twist in obesity research.
One point, however, shines clear: the old, ugly accusation that fat people are only fat because they’re lazy slobs who eat too much is crumbling before our eyes. All along, those of us who have struggled, with varying degrees of success, against our bodies’ tendency to squirrel away fat, have been convinced that we had different metabolisms than skinny people. We were right. But who knew we that we might have caught it along with a cold?
Here’s the kicker: There’s at least a glimmer of hope that someday there may be a vaccine. It’s far too early to know, but we can live in hope.
© 2009 by Dana Carpender. Used by kind permission of the catchy author. What do you think? Please send Dana your comments to Dana Carpender.