Yes, according to scientists at Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge.

At an American Chemical Society symposium this morning, they reported that human adenovirus-36, a common virus that causes respiratory and eye infections, can transform adult stem cells into fat cells. In controlled studies, stem cells that were not exposed to the virus did not develop into fat cells.

An earlier study at Louisiana State showed that 30 percent of obese people were infected with the virus, while only 11 percent of lean people were infected. But until the new study was done, there was no proof that the virus can actually cause fat levels to increase.

Not everyone infected with adenovirus-36 will put on pounds, the scientists say, but it is one potential cause of the nationwide obesity epidemic. And it’s a cause that might eventually be treatable with antiviral medications or vaccines.—Dawn Stover