Berrie Center Scientist Investigates Obesity and Covid-19

What's the Connection?

December 21, 2020

Obesity is a risk factor for severe Covid-19 and a Berrie Center scientist has made a connection between brain cell “cilium”—the tiny little antennae that regulate weight—and the cilium that line the airways and expel mucous from the body. The structures might be microscopic, but their significance is large. 

George Stratigopoulos with his son

George Stratigopoulos, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Molecular Genetics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC), thinks these little antennae may be responsible for the way the coronavirus affects people who are obese.

“People who are heavier are more likely to show more severe symptoms and that could be for a lot of reasons,” he said. “They might also have type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, breathing problems; it could be because their diaphragm isn’t working well because they have too much fat, their lung capacity is low, or they have inflammation that affects the immune system.”

Continued Dr. Stratigopoulos, “Or, it could, at least partly, be because of malfunctioning cilia. If you have genetic failures that mess up your little antenna in your brain, these very same genetic failures affect the very similar antenna that are present in your airways and lungs. And if those tiny antennae aren’t functioning properly, this might explain why some individuals are susceptible to a more severe infection from Covid-19.” 

To study his hypothesis, Dr. Stratigopoulos alongside stem cell expert Claudia Doege, MD, research Faculty at the Berrie Center, lung expert Wellington Cardoso MD, PhD, Director of the Columbia Center for Human Development, and Rudolph Leibel, MD, the Berrie Center Co-Director, propose, among other experimental avenues, to make use of a tissue bank coordinated by Wendy K. Chung, MD, PhD, the Kennedy Professor of Pediatrics at CUIMC. This tissue bank includes airway and brain tissue of people who had Covid-19, and it will allow Dr. Stratigopoulos to study the specific genes of people who had severe responses to the virus. 

Although the road ahead is bumpy, the goal is clear.

“The vaccine will give us some normalcy for the time being,” said Dr. Stratigopoulos. “But pursuing the development of alternative treatments to reduce severity of infection, which is what we aim to do, is essential.” 

Since 2008, Dr. Stratigopoulos’ work at the Berrie Center on the primary cilium has helped to clarify basic cell and molecular biology underlying body weight regulation. An important aspect of this research is the role of ciliary genes in the physical development of the brain circuits that regulate food intake.

“Differences in molecular mechanisms commonly found in our DNA predispose some of us to gain weight versus others,” said Dr. Stratigopoulos. “By identifying new genes, such as cilia genes that control body weight, we might have the ability in the future to design new drugs to combat obesity.”

Dr. Stratigopoulos is actively pursuing government grants and funding to do so. “Due to the urgency to understand Covid-19, there is more flexibility to submit proposals, which presents an interesting opportunity,” said Dr. Stratigopoulos. 

Please donate today to this groundbreaking project. Your dollars will advance scientific understanding in the fields of endocrinology, immunology and obesity. A donation today will help Dr. Stratigopoulos and Dr. Doege get one step closer to finding new treatments for a virus that we hope to put behind us forever. 

As passionate as George Stratigopoulos is about cell biology and brain development, he is most passionate about his 3-month-old son, Otis. When not at the Berrie Center, Dr. Stratigopoulos relishes in observing Otis’ every movement.