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Study to explore why COVID can also lead to obesity, diabetes

OHSU leading $2.5 million, two-year study in nonhuman primates
A health care worker tests the blood-sugar level of a patient.
A health care worker tests the blood-sugar level of a patient. People are at higher risk for developing obesity and diabetes after they get COVID-19, and OHSU researchers want to know why. (Getty Images)

An Oregon Health & Science University-led team of researchers is exploring why people are at higher risk for developing obesity and diabetes after they get COVID-19.

OHSU has been awarded a two-year, $2.5-million grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a nonhuman primate study that will evaluate how the body may change the way it  processes fat and sugar after being sick with COVID-19.

Charles T. Roberts, Ph.D., is next to a blue background.
Charles T. Roberts, Ph.D. (OHSU)

“There’s a reciprocal relationship between COVID-19 and metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes,” said one of the study’s lead researchers, Charles T. Roberts, Ph.D., a professor and associate director for research at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center. “Better understanding that relationship could help identify treatment options or even reduce health risks to begin with.”

It’s well known that certain medical conditions can increase the risk of developing severe COVID-19. Many studies also indicate that people who have had COVID-19 are more likely to experience various conditions even after they’ve recovered from the infection.

In addition to kidney disease, heart failure, stroke, hair loss and even impotence, research suggests that COVID-19 also increases the risk of developing obesity and diabetes. For example, a March 2022 study of patients who survived COVID-19 found that they were about 40% more likely to develop diabetes for up to a year later. And an April 2021 study concluded that people often develop numerous conditions after recovering from COVID-19 — including obesity and diabetes.

The OHSU-led research team will study two groups of rhesus macaques — one that’s lean, another that’s obese. They will expose both groups to COVID-19 and monitor them for up to six months to determine if the lean animals develop obesity or diabetes, as well as if the obese animals develop diabetes or more severe obesity. They will also look for changes in cells of the pancreas, which produces insulin to control blood sugar levels, as well as changes in fat tissue and the amount of fats and sugars in blood. If any animals develop obesity or diabetes, the researchers also aim to determine the molecular mechanisms that are involved in those changes.

The study’s leadership team includes OHSU researchers Roberts, Paul Kievit, Ph.D., and Jonah Sacha, Ph.D. Other study team members are Daniel Streblow, Ph.D., at OHSU; Maike Sander, M.D., at UC San Diego; Steven Kahn, M.B., Ch.B., at VA Puget Sound Health Care System and University of Washington; and Catherine Blish, M.D., Ph.D., and Tracey McLaughlin, M.D., both at Stanford University.

This research is supported by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (grant 3R01DK122843-04S1), as part of the NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery, or RECOVER Initiative, which seeks to understand the long-term effects of COVID and improve long COVID care.

All research involving animal subjects at OHSU must be reviewed and approved by the university’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). The IACUC’s priority is to ensure the health and safety of animal research subjects. The IACUC also reviews procedures to ensure the health and safety of the people who work with the animals. The IACUC conducts a rigorous review of all animal research proposals to ensure they demonstrate scientific value and justify the use of live animals.

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