Pennington researchers explore obesity and immune response to COVID-19

Updated: Jul. 27, 2020 at 6:49 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) -Researchers at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center think a hormone that involves metabolism and the immune response system may be the reason COVID-19 is dangerous for obese people.

Leptin regulates appetite as well as cells that fight infection say the researchers.

Candida Rebello, PhD, RD., is the lead author of the new Pennington article, “Obesity, the Most Common Comorbidity in SARS-CoV-2: Is Leptin the Link?”

“People who have diabetes, about 89 percent also have obesity,” Dr. Rebello said in an interview with FOX 8.

She said obesity and diabetes are connected to high levels of leptin. Additionally, the researchers say increased leptin levels impede the body’s ability to wage war on infections.

“Obesity is related, or is associated with high blood levels of a hormone called leptin, so leptin is released in proportion to the amount of fat stores that we have in our body,” said Rebello. “Even diabetes is associated with the elevated levels of leptin in the blood, so how that relates to COVID-19 and the immune function is that leptin also has a role in immune function.”

The Pennington scientists concluded that obesity and elevated circulating leptin predisposes people with COVID-19 to morbidity and mortality through a compromised immune response.

“So, the immune response is either ineffective or its insufficient or it is misdirected and the result is that there is tissue damage, there is kind of an uncontrolled loop of inflammatory responses that result ultimately in many cases in multi-organ failure which leads to a number of the fatalities that we see in COVID-19 in patients with obesity,” Rebello stated.

She was asked what advice she would give to someone who is obese and a diabetic amid the ongoing pandemic.

“Even in these circumstances we have to make the effort to sort of watch what we’re eating, as a dietitian and as an obesity researcher I know how difficult that is, I know how difficult weight loss is, so I advocate for small changes,” Rebello said.

And she urges those developing vaccines to take into account the immuno-compromised state of those who are obese.

“Just as you consider advanced age in the development of vaccines, one has also now to consider obesity. We have to take into consideration obesity in the development of vaccines,” Rebello said.

Pennington’s Executive Director John Kirwan, PhD., said of those who have obesity, “Your entire body, including your lungs, may be inflamed. Your immune response is likely compromised and your lung capacity reduced.

The researchers said the role of leptin in COVID-19′s development warrants investigation along with the viral proteins that alter the immune systems of obese people.

The Pennington article was published in the International Journal of Obesity.

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