June 25, 2008

The Losing Game



Cough. Oh, excuse me. Sneeze. I think I am still getting over my obesity virus. Sniffle.

Yes, it's entirely possible I have the obesity virus. About 30 percent of obese people are infected with adenovirus 8036, according to Richard Atkinson, M.D., who has been studying the virus for years and started a company -- Obetech -- to attempt to develop both antiviral drugs and a vaccine to prevent the disease.

Atkinson knows he is something of a maverick when it comes to obesity research. Most obesity researchers do not share his core belief that the majority of obesity is caused by a viral disease.

And his preferred way to treat obesity -- relying heavily on anti- obesity drugs and less on diet and exercise -- is also controversial.

"Obesity is not a result of simple overeating. Behavior modification is not the answer. Obesity drugs are the future," Atkinson said in a recent telephone interview. "The vast majority of obesity experts have their head in the sand."

So he is used to naysayers like me, who believe that overeating is the main cause of obesity and that disease and genetic predisposition are the source of the problem for only a small number of people.

And he is used to people saying, "If there really is a virus, you are just giving people an excuse to be fat."

But he sees his discovery not as a justification for obesity, but an explanation.

He compares the obesity virus to AIDS. He points out that people who have AIDS don't feel like they have an excuse to be sick and instead take medicine to mitigate the effects of the illness.

"If you find you have a reason for obesity (such as a virus) you will take care of yourself," he said.

The obesity virus is one of the more than 50 types of adenovirus, which cause a variety of illnesses like the common cold, pink eye, croup, bronchitis and pneumonia.

Atkinson believes that a person acutely infected with adenovirus 8036 might show symptoms ranging from a slight cold to diarrhea, but not increased weight gain. That comes later, after the virus has been defeated by the body's immune system and the person feels better. But while the actual virus is gone, its remnants set up housekeeping in the fat cells, turning on enzymes that cause a cell to retain fat.

Then slowly, over years, the effect of these always-on enzymes can cause obesity, Atkinson says.

I write "can cause" because it is by no means certain that a person infected with the virus will become fat.

About 11 percent of lean people also have the virus. Atkinson says this might be because somewhere in their own personal history of disease, these people contracted a different pathogen that doesn't allow the virus to fully express itself.

But he cautions those who are in the lean-but-infected category that they must be vigilant or they could become obese. They should eat right, exercise and start taking obesity drugs now as a precaution, he said.

Atkinson discovered the obesity virus, he said, through a series of studies that started with infecting chicken, rats, mice and monkeys with the virus. The result?

"Everything we infected got fat," he said, "even when fed the exact same diet as those animals that were not infected. In fact, 100 percent of the monkeys got fat, an intriguing result for a mammal that shares 93 percent of our genes."

Next, Atkinson's team moved on to human studies.

They took blood from 500 people in the Eastern United States and found that 30 percent of the obese people and 11 percent of the non- obese people were infected. From this, they extrapolated that 15 percent of the total population may be infected with adenovirus 8036.

Atkinson believes his results also might explain why obesity rates jumped sharply almost 30 years ago yet are leveling off today. The virus could have mutated back in the 1970s -- when only 13 percent of people were obese -- to a new form that caused obesity. If the mutated virus kept infecting people, he said, obesity rates would have increased steadily, then eventually leveled off -- as they have at 30 percent -- as the population either became infected or fought off the disease.

Atkinson's main goals at the moment are to develop an antiviral drug for people acutely infected with the virus and a vaccine he would like to see given along with the standard childhood series.

But all this research doesn't mean much if someone who has the disease already is obese.

"Once you're fat, you're fat," Atkinson said.

Meaning, even if I do have the virus, the only way to lose the excess weight is still through healthy eating and exercise.


Want to know if you have the obesity virus? Go to Christine's blog at etastesantafe.com to find out how you can get tested.

Christine Barber has been a journalist in New Mexico for 14 years. She is a pre-medical student at The University

of New Mexico. E-mail her at [email protected]

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