Intersecting Threats: Exploring Obesity's Impact on Viral Pathogenesis and Transmission


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Virginia Tech


Malnutrition, including both undernutrition and obesity, affects millions of people globally and is persistently on the rise. Obesity affects ~13% of adults globally and was identified as a risk factor for worse disease outcomes after the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009 and has since been shown to aggravate disease outcomes of respiratory viruses like severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and mosquito-borne viruses like West Nile Virus (WNV), chikungunya virus (CHIKV) and Mayaro virus (MAYV) and reduce the vaccine efficacy for influenza and SARS-CoV-2. Obesity is associated with a chronic state of inflammation and dysregulated immune response which has been proposed to be one of the mechanisms driving the severity of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). These altered signatures or biomarkers might be associated with disease outcome and prognosis. Therefore, animal models reflecting the clinical outcomes and natural immune responses observed in humans are crucial to identifying reliable biomarkers. Using mouse hepatitis virus 1 (MHV-1) as a model for SARS-CoV-2, we established obesity as a risk factor and identified biomarkers and pathways associated with worse disease outcomes. Obesity rates in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) are approaching levels found in high-income countries (HICs). Mosquito-borne viral diseases like dengue, chikungunya, and Zika pose a significant threat to LMICs and cause huge health and economic losses. Obesity was shown to worsen alphavirus pathogenesis, but interestingly, it also reduced their transmission by mosquitoes. Given the global prevalence of obesity and mosquito-borne viruses, it is critical to understand how obesity drives reduced alphavirus transmission. Using a natural transmission cycle between lean and obese mice and mosquitoes, we confirmed that obesity reduced the transmission potential of alphaviruses like CHIKV and MAYV and activated the Toll pathway in mosquito midguts. Various genes and other pathways were also altered in response to obese bloodmeal at various time-points post-bloodmeal; however, one gene, AAEL009965, was downregulated in the mosquito midguts 1-day-post-bloodmeal and its knockdown led to reduced infection rates and titers in mosquitoes. Through this thesis, we aimed to utilize obesity as a tool to identify biomarkers to predict coronavirus disease outcomes and design effective alphavirus transmission control strategies.



Obesity, coronavirus, alphavirus, pathogenesis, transmission, biomarkers, RNA sequencing, differential gene expression