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Doctor Discovers Mysterious Chicken Virus That May Cause Obesity

A doctor from India has discovered the virus which many medical professionals now believe is responsible for a significant amount of the obesity seen throughout the world. Dr. Nikhil Dhurandhar, who is a nutritional biochemist in addition to being a physician, has been involved with obesity treatment and research for over twenty years. According to his bio at Texas Tech University, Dhurandhar "has treated over 10,000 patients for obesity using lifestyle therapy as well as pharmacological approaches."

He believes that simple explanations for causes of obesity are inadequate and novel approaches are required for its effective management. He coined the term “Infectobesity” to describe obesity of infectious origin. Dr. Dhurandhar et al were the first to identify adipogenic effects of an avian adenovirus (SMAM-1) and a human adenovirus (Ad36) that cause obesity in animals including rodents and monkeys, and are associated with obesity in humans and non-human primates.

Dhurandhar began his journey of discovery as a young doctor in Mumbai, India, where he had followed in his father’s footsteps in treating obesity but had run into the same obstacle that had frustrated obesity doctors everywhere.

“The problem was that I was not able to produce something for patients that could have meaningful weight loss that was sustainable for a long time,” he says. “Patients kept coming back.”

A profile of Dhurandhar in Wired explains in detail how he discovered what seems to be a missing piece of the puzzle, and how his discovery has revolutionized the treatment of people who suffer from obesity.

Fate intervened in Dhurandhar’s life one day was when he was meeting his father and a family friend, S. M. Ajinkya, a veterinary pathologist, for tea. Ajinkya described an epidemic then blazing through the Indian poultry industry killing thousands of chickens. He had identified the virus and named it using, in part, his own initials—SMAM-1. Upon necropsy, Ajinkya explained, the chickens were found to have shrunken thymuses, enlarged kidneys and livers, and fat deposited in the abdomen. Dhurandhar thought this was unusual because typically viruses cause weight loss, not gain. Ajinkya was about to go on, but Dhurandhar stopped him: “You just said something that doesn’t sound right to me. You said that the chickens had a lot of fat in their abdomen. Is it possible that the virus was making them fat?”

Ajinkya answered honestly, “I don’t know,” and urged Dhurandhar to study the question. That fateful conversation set Dhurandhar on a path to investigate as part of his PhD project whether a virus could cause fat.

Dhurandhar pushed ahead and arranged an experiment using 20 healthy chickens. He infected half of them with SMAM-1 and left the other half uninfected. During the experiment, both groups of chickens consumed the same amount of food. By the end of the experiment, only the chickens infected with the SMAM-1 virus had become fat. However, even though the infected chickens were fatter, they had lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in their blood than the uninfected birds. “It was quite paradoxical,” Dhurandhar remembers, “because if you have a fatter chicken, you would expect them to have greater cholesterol and circulating triglycerides, but instead those levels went in the wrong direction.”