Bronchial Epithelium with Inflammation

A Spotlight on Inflammation, Obesity, and COVID-19

Most people think of obesity as an issue of body weight. But in fact, weight is merely an artifact. It’s a side effect of what’s really going on in the physiology of obesity. In fact, an excess of adipose tissue that harms health is what defines obesity. In turn, one of the key pathways for that harm is inflammation. New research is telling us more about how this works. At the same time, we’re seeing an overlap between COVID-19 and obesity. Research suggests a role for inflammation in both diseases. And when those diseases occur together, the outcomes are worse – possibly because of the inflammation.

Controlling Obesity by Controlling Inflammation?

Research from Washington University points to the possibility that controlling inflammation could become a useful tool for controlling obesity. Steven Teitelbaum and colleagues investigated macrophages in the chronic inflammation associated with obesity. They targeted the AXL2 in the macrophages of mice with obesity. They interfered with that gene in two different experiments. When they did, mice with obesity began burning calories at the same rate as healthy mice. Teitelbaum explained:

We’ve developed a proof of concept here that you can regulate weight gain by modulating the activity of these inflammatory cells. It might work in a number of ways, but we believe it may be possible to control obesity and the complications of obesity by better regulating inflammation.

The Immune Response of Fat Cells

And then yesterday, researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital published new research on the role of fat cells in systemic inflammation. Specifically, they studied how type I interferon can unleash inflammation caused by adipocytes – fat cells. This research provides a deeper understanding of how adipocytes promote inflammation. Understanding the pathways can point to tools for controlling it.

COVID-19 and Obesity

It’s pretty clear now that obesity is a risk factor for more severe symptoms with COVID-19. Scientists offer many explanations, but they keep coming back to systemic inflammation. The immune response to COVID is what leads to deadly complications. In obesity, elevated inflammation may be a key predictor for high risk patients. Sonja Chiappetta et al published data to illustrate this in the International Journal of Obesity recently.

We have little doubt that we will be learning much more about inflammation in the coming days. It’s important for COVID-19. It plays a role in obesity. But when these two diseases come together, understanding the role of inflammation might turn out to be life-saving.

Click here for the Teitelbaum study, here for the study from Cincinnati Children’s, and here for the Chiappetta paper.

Bronchial Epithelium with Inflammation, micrograph © Librepath / Wikimedia Commons

Subscribe by email to follow the accumulating evidence and observations that shape our view of health, obesity, and policy.


June 3, 2020