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Friday, June 04, 2004

A Vaccine for the The Obesity Epidemic?


Most people, I think, believe that obesity is caused by a lack of willpower. I've always thought that this view was based more on self-righteousness than on evidence: "Don't eat so much, fatty!" For one thing, I know that many diseases that were once thought to be caused by poor life styles or poor behavior are now known to be caused by infectious agents.

Ulcers, once thought to be caused by stress, are the most prominent example ("Mellow out, dude, you'll give yourself an ulcer. And don't drink so much"). We now know that ulcers are caused by a bacterium in the vast majority of cases. Amazingly, studies show that about half of doctors still don't prescribe antibiotics for ulcers, despite correctly answering questions about their cause, and despite the consensus recommendation of prestigious medical organizations that antibiotics should be the first line of treatment. I attribute this to a deep-seated desire to blame misfortune on sin.

Similarly, schizophrenia used to be blamed on poor parenting. This is so despite the fact that has long been know that the disease can be caused by a bacterium (syphilis). Scientists are now pursuing several tantalizing leads suggesting a viral cause.

It has also long been known that certain types of heart disease (viral myocarditis) are caused by a virus. But scientists now think that common viruses may play a role in many other types of heart disease and stroke as well.

Through the magic of google, I learn that obesity too, may be caused by a virus. Certain viruses have been shown to cause large weight gains in animals. For example, marmosets infected with the adenovirus-36 virus gained 12% of their body weight over six months, compared to 3% for uninfected animals. In humans, the virus causes colds and diarrhea. But its effects may linger. One study found that 30% of the obese have antibodies to adenovirus-36 compared to 5% of the non-obese.

Interestingly, the researcher most prominent in this area has patented the virus, the antibody test, and a possible vaccine. Perhaps he's working on an obesity cure?

 
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