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The Obesity Virus

Is obesity contagious?

What if a virus made you fat? That's the startling conclusion Dr, Nikhil Dhurandhar and Dr. Richard Atkinson from the University of Wisconsin came to, when they injected mice and chickens with a virus known as Ad-36. (Human adenovirus 36.)

Researchers fed infected animals and a control group with the same amounts of food. At the end of the study, they found the infected animals gained small amounts of extra weight. The most surprising part were the changes in fat. Animals injected with Ad-36 put on nearly 2.5 times more body fat than the control animals.

Those findings were published in the August 2000 issue of the International Journal of Obesity, the journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO). Since then, there have been additional studies on other adenovirus strains including Ad-5 and Ad-37, that show they increase fat when injected into animals. What researchers needed next was to find out how humans are affected by the different strains of adenovirus.

That presents a problem. You can't ethically inject a potentially harmful virus into an uninfected group of people to see what happens. The next best step would be to select a broad cross-section of random people. Test to see who has, or has not, been exposed to the different virus strains, then measure their body fat. But that's not what researchers did.

In the only major study that links Ad-36 to fat people, researchers chose 360 "massively obese" people from clinics in Florida, New York and Wisconsin. They also recruited 142 lean people from the University and area communities from 1995 to 1999. Then they tested everyone for the Ad-36 virus. In their groups, they found 30% of the obese people tested positive and 11% of the lean people tested positive for Ad-36. In March 2005 they published their study and started marketing Ad-36 as the "obesity virus."

The marketing was brilliant, but the science was flawed. The most obvious problem is their use of carefully selected samples, and not a random cross section of the population. In the study, two very different groups of people were compared and no controls were put in place for anything other than age. Then the researchers made a wild leap, claiming that Ad-36 was the CAUSE, without describing HOW. What's worse, they couldn't explain why the 11% of lean subjects who had been exposed weren't overweight.

As you look into the press releases, news reports and online discussions, a trend emerges. Everything labeling Ad-36 as the "obesity virus" can be traced back to Dr. Dhurandhar and Dr. Atkinson. It's been nearly 10 years since the publication of their astonishing claims that a virus may be the cause of obesity, and follow-up studies don't seem to agree with the original report.

In a 2011 paper published in Obesity (Silver Spring), researchers analyzed 509 serum samples for Ad-36. They found the number and body mass index of people infected with Ad-36 wasn't significantly different from non-infected people. They concluded that, "Ad-36 does not play a role as a direct cause of BMI increase and obesity in humans in Western Europe."

In 2012, a study was done on Ad-36 and Korean adults. 540 age and sex-matched individuals were examined and researchers said, "Although more overweight participants than normal or obese subjects tested positive for the Ad-36 antibody (40%, 32.8% and 30%, respectively), the differences were not significant."

Here's where it gets really sketchy. In 2004, a year before that first study "linking" obesity with Ad-36 was published, Dr. Atkinson moved to Richmond, Virginia. He founded a company called Obetech that, "offers a wide variety of medical testing and services. Our main focus is on Adenovirus 36 (Adv36) that causes obesity and a variety of complications associated with obesity." Obetech currently sells three tests for the "obesity virus" that range in price from $200 to $400 (in January 2014).

There are several problems.

  • After a decade of selling Ad-36 tests, Obetech has yet to get any of them FDA approved.
  • Current studies question the link between Ad-36 and obesity.
  • And finally, if you've been exposed to the virus, there is no cure.

If you're dealing with excess fat, quit focusing on things you can't control. There isn't a shot that'll cure obesity. You've got to take action and fight back, one healthy meal at a time.

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4/20/2014