Love handles are contagious. Viruses lurking in your food may spread obesity, infiltrating adult stem cells and transforming them into fat cells.
He and Richard Atkinson of the University of Wisconsin tested more than 500 people for the presence of Ad-36 antibodies, an indicator of infection, and found that infected people weighed more than non-infected people. Earlier studies in rodents and chickens showed that even when infected and uninfected animals ate the same amount, only the former became obese. And they stayed obese for up to six months after the initial infection, which suggests that you may not be able to bounce back from "infectobesity," as Dhurandhar terms it, the same way you can from, say, a stomach virus.
Scarily enough, the theory is gaining acceptance. It might sound far-fetched to think that love handles can spread like the flu, but research bears it out. Infectobesity is not limited to Ad-36. "There have been nine other pathogens reported to induce obesity in animals," says physician Magdalena Pasarica, a researcher at Pennington's endocrinology lab. "I'm sure others will turn up. Viruses alter things at the molecular level." Of course, questions remain -- chief among them why some people with the virus never become obese. And even if proof is forthcoming, no one is arguing that microbes are to blame for every case of obesity. "This virus may affect less than 11 percent of obese people," Pasarica says.
Atkinson offers mail-order testing for Ad-36 antibodies, which indicate the presence of the virus, through his company, Obetech. The $450 fee won't buy a cure, but it does provide comforting proof that there's more at play than just a big appetite. "Once we prove causality in humans, the next step will be a vaccine and an antiviral medication to treat obesity of viral origins," Pasarica says. But understanding how viruses trigger fat transformation has implications beyond vaccines. According to Dhurandhar, pinpointing the viral mechanism for regulatory control over fat cells could help treat metabolic diseases in which the body does not make fat cells on its own. More relevant to obesity, once science can find the precise molecular pathways that make a person lose weight, it can start developing therapeutic targets for them. In other words, if we can reverse the process the virus uses to make fat, it may one day be possible to create drugs that eliminate the need for diet and exercise.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.