Obesity viruses

The intriguing tale of obesity viruses

Viruses can make you fat — and your dirty-fingered friends can give these viruses to you. That is the punch line — a known truth about the world. The set-up, though, is longer in the telling. It begins with a boy named Nikhil living in India.

When Nikhil Dhurandhar was young, his father directed a large obesity clinic in Bombay. Throughout his childhood, Nikhil saw thousands of his father’s obese patients. They came in for some cure, whether salve or salvation. Instead, they received, again and again, the same advice: “Move more. Eat less.”

It is what doctors around the world tell their patients. You might have heard the same advice. It echoes on TV, across magazines and everywhere else, bouncing throughout our society. Sometimes the advice works, but more often, it does not.

As he grew up, Nikhil came to feel a deep sympathy for the many patients who tried and failed to lose weight. He wanted to help, but he also wanted to do something more than offer advice. Despite huge sums of money spent on the diet industry each year in Bombay and nearly everywhere else, the best that doctors can do, short of pills and expensive surgeries, is to look their patients in the eyes and, in each of a hundred different languages, tell them what, in most cases, they already know.

Dhurandhar did what he could. He went to the US for a master’s degree in 1987 and then returned to Bombay to work as a clinician beside his father while simultaneously doing research for his doctorate. On the days he was in the clinic, he stood beside his father and said, “Move more. Eat less.” He uttered those words so often that they became more like a prayer than advice. He imagined himself praying like this over his patients each day for the rest of his life. Then things changed.

In 1988, Dhurandhar was looking for insight and had grown curious about a family friend, Sharad M. Ajinkya. Ajinkya was a well-known and accomplished veterinary researcher. Dhurandhar began to read Ajinkya’s work and noticed his papers on the virus SMAM-1, which had caused the deaths of thousands of chickens in India in the early 1980s.

One day, not much later, Dhurandhar and Ajinkya had a conversation that would change Dhurandhar’s life. The topic of chicken viruses came up. Ajinkya mentioned that the chickens he had studied, the ones with the virus SMAM-1, were fat. They had big kidneys and fat around the abdomen. Ajinkya had noticed the chickens’ fat, but he hadn’t thought it unusual, not really, just one observation in a career of millions of noticed details.

As the two men talked, Dhurandhar grew excited. What started as dinner-party banter became something entirely different. “Stop right there. Did you say that the chickens had fat abdomens?” Dhurandhar asked.

“Yes, yes they did.”

“Why is there fat in the abdomen?”

“Well, I’m not sure. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

“Is it possible that the virus made the chickens fat? That is, could the virus cause, in the chickens, obesity?”

Ajinkya’s response was key to what would follow. Had he said “no,” Dhurandhar might have continued along some other line of conversation — the monsoons or the rising price of gas.

Whole lives can turn sometimes on a single, well-placed word; so, too, the absence of one. Ajinkya didn’t say no. He said, “I don’t know.” That, for Dhurandhar, was enough. Stokedby Ajinkya’s observations and uncertainty, Dhurandhar’s mind began to spin. He thought, or maybe he even said aloud: Is it possible that human obesity is caused by a virus?

With caution, the pair began to investigate…..

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