May 13, 2008
Face and Butt, Heal Thyselves
by David Evans
For HIV-positive people who develop lipoatrophy, or fat loss, in their faces, arms and legs, perhaps the most frustrating thing is that few options are available to reverse it. Not wanting their bodies to betray the fact that they have HIV, many living with lipoatrophy resort to pricey cosmetic procedures to fill cheeks and bums.
But new data raise the question of whether it is possible for HIV-associated lipoatrophy to be reversed naturally by the body itself. In studies conducted at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, researchers showed for the first time that our bodies are constantly producing new fat cells to replace others that have died. While these results, reported in Nature, may be a frustrating reality for overweight individuals looking to lose flab—and keep it off—these new findings are being discussed as a potential beacon of hope for those with this stigmatizing HIV treatment side effect.
The long-standing suggestion among researchers has been that the number of fat cells, or adipocytes, in our bodies is determined early in life, likely during childhood and adolescence. While research has established that adipocytes expand and contract—rendering us fatter as they fill and thinner as they empty—there has been little previous evidence showing that these cells die or are replaced. Consequently, the reigning theory has been that once fat cells are removed or die, they are gone forever. And for people with HIV-associated lipoatrophy, this meant that fat loss could only be reversed via expensive and sometimes painful cosmetic correction.
However, the new data from Karolinska’s Kirsty Spalding, PhD, and her colleagues indicate that fat cells may repopulate naturally to achieve a “steady state” number in the body.
In their first experiment, Spalding’s team took samples of abdominal fat from people who were about to have gastric bypass surgery, and then again after they had lost a lot of weight. The number of fat cells before and after surgery remained the same. What changed, as has been shown in the past, was the size of the individuals’ fat cells.
The researchers then conducted experiments on adipocytes taken from 35 trim and overweight study volunteers. The question now was whether the set point was due to a very long-lived population of adipocytes or a cycle of cell death and replacement working closely in lockstep.
By measuring a substance called carbon 14 in the adipocytes to determine the age of the cells, Spalding’s group found that some cells were much younger than others. And with the help of mathematical modeling, the researchers reported a remarkable steady state, whereby 10 percent of our fat cells die and are replaced on a yearly basis.
Spalding and her colleagues suggest that replenishment comes from the maturation of immature fat cells or from stem cells turning into fat cells.
Grace McComsey, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Rheumatology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and a researcher who has long studied HIV and fat loss, thinks that the Swedish study is interesting, but she stresses that it’s too early to know what the implications will be for HIV-positive people with lipoatrophy.
The usual culprit behind lipoatrophy in HIV-positive people is a group of nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors known as thymidine analogues, notably Zerit (stavudine) and Retrovir (zidovudine). These drugs damage the energy generators, called mitochondria, inside adipocytes and cause the cells to die.
It is for this reason that McComsey recommends people avoid or switch off of these drugs whenever possible. For people who’ve already experienced fat loss, McComsey is hopeful that the Swedish study is correct. “Maybe you can regenerate some of the fat cells that were dying due to thymidine analogues, now that you’ve taken away the offending agent,” says McComsey. If the adult body is hardwired to maintain a certain number of fat cells, she explains, stopping the offending drug should result in an eventual replacement of adipocytes that have been lost.
McComesey says it’s difficult to make direct comparisons between HIV research and the Swedish study, but says that she is cautiously optimistic. If there is a fat-cell set point, she reasons, then it is possible that adults with lipoatrophy will eventually regain the fat they’ve lost—if they stop the offending medications. What’s less certain is how long it will take for those fat cells to return. McComsey also has concerns for HIV-positive children and adolescents, who may reach an age when their body would normally settle on a certain number of fat cells to retain with far fewer fat cells than normal.
While studies involving HIV-positive people have shown improvements in lipoatrophy, the recovery process is slow. At a rate of 10 percent per year, a person who has lost half of the fat cells in their arms and legs would need about eight years to regain all of them back.
But McComsey feels there’s reason to remain optimistic. And she points out that if obesity researchers find a way to limit or reduce the number of fat cells in obese individuals, they may also discover a method of speeding up the replacement of fat cells in those with lipoatrophy. Helping others benefit from research that’s trying to make people thinner would be a wonderful irony. “After all,” says McComsey, “other diseases, like hepatitis, benefit from advances in HIV research all the time.”
Search: lipoatrophy, fat loss, cosmetic surgery, Kirsty Spalding, Karolinska Institute, Grace McComsey, Case Western
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comments 1 - 15 (of 22 total) next
John, San Francisco, 2008-06-25 23:52:21
This is an interesting article, but it completely neglects people like me. I have lipoatrophy that is solely the result of HIV infection. I have never taken any antiretroviral medications, but I have had pretty severe fat loss in my face, arms, legs, hands, feet, and buttocks. I'd like to believe that my body is still producing fat cells to replace the ones I've lost, but if it's really doing that, it's not replacing them at nearly the rate at which they're being lost.
Marcos, 2008-6-13, Boston, 2008-06-16 05:20:05
I also suffered very noticeable lipoatrophy on face/butt/legs due to Zerit and other meds which gave me daily bouts of diarrhea.
Years ago changed meds to Sustiva/Ziagen/Viread but both problems persisted until one day i had the epiphany of NOT taking Ziagen/Viread together at breakfast time and taking them instead after my daily big dinners (lots of natural fiber/roughage) ?
For the past 4 months the diarrhea has improved about 90% and i can swear my face+ass began to regain some fat !
raymond, nyc, 2008-06-12 00:11:47
I have been on azt for maybe 15 yrs. and I have the face to prove it. I am thinking of changin the azt, the problem is that I'm doing well. Any opinions out there?
Scott-33624, Tampa, 2008-06-06 09:19:18
I have had HIV since 1984 and gone thru every treatment and med. I think meds play apart but I started losing weight prior to treatment and have change from the meds associate with weight loss, 7 years ago but yet I have not regained any body fat in my face or butt. I just realize until there is a cure for the virus, I will be stuck looking like this, but as I get older it won't matter anyway, my body will represent my age.
sally, Gilbert, AZ, 2008-06-02 13:39:15
I have been off Zerit for several years now, never took Retrovir, and still look like a skeleton! My weight is not really redistributing, it is falling off. Down 30 lbs even though I continue to eat as much as possible, including lots of protein, plus I work out to try to build up. I had already heard we never lose fat cells, but think mine are empty!
Bobino, San Francisco, 2008-05-30 00:31:03
Not sure what this means for people like me, who have lipodystrophy WITHOUT ever having taken HIV meds. Clearly, HIV infection alone plays some role in the development of lipo. If my body is still producing fat cells at this point, I'd love to know where they are. The only place I can see them is in my abdomen.
muhereza, Maputo, 2008-05-24 12:45:50
i have been on lamuvudin and efivarez for about three years but my worry is, i lost almost all the fat in feet cos am now experiencing double colour feet i.e some areas are black others are a bit spoty black.
sometime i feel ashamed to put on open shoes but the rest of my body is normal size and not so noticeable.p'se advise on how i can bring back my feet colour down on the legs.thanks
Hassan J., Philadelphia PA, 2008-05-21 12:32:42
I was on AZT mono in 1987. Did the zerit and epivir thing for several years. Lost so much fat in face and butt that I use a donut to sit on when traveling. Veins popping out of my arms and legs look kinda wierd. Have not been on these nukes for 13 years, still waiting for the results noted in the article. Sometimes I don't even want to look at myself in the mirror. Stay in gym for the rest of the body.
Tre, fayetteville, 2008-05-18 18:24:23
I havent seen this happen either, I have been dealing with fat redistribution since 2003. No matter what i do eat right exercise take diet pills nothing works. I have alot of weight gain around my mid section and loss all the fat in my butt i mean all of it
Carol, Kampala, 2008-05-17 02:04:03
I loved wearing short (short!) skirts. Suddenly, they were replaced by (full time) trousers...and everyone noticed.I'm glad there's a beacon of light at the end of this tunnel. Btw, I have never stopped being otpimistic that my legs would get back to normal. I have been off Zerit for abt two years now. We keep hoping...and praying.
Louis Bernard, New Orleans, 2008-05-15 16:56:30
I recently started the use of Truvada & I have not noticed any side effects. In about 2 weeks, I will get the results of my bloodwork, for the first time since I started Truvada. I feel that everything will be positive.
Daddy Michael P., FtWorth TX, 2008-05-15 16:12:31
Long into the epidemic, I am pleased to see research ongoing to fat loss! American Pharma does NOT study the "vanity" fallout from Aids! There is no profit in it for them, THEY think. Go figure! The "spill over" effect from research in ALL different medical maladies, can benifit often unexpected other maladies. I challenge American Pharma to look outside their percieved profit zone. Thanks much from TX, Michael P.
Rene, San Francisco, 2008-05-15 12:02:13
How about anabolic? Will it help to increase the fat cells?
Deke, Buffalo, MO, 2008-05-15 11:16:58
McComsey needs some real-world
investigation. I stopped taking Zerit 8 years ago, and my hyperlipoatrophy is getting worse. And I havent seen a single person, who also has lipoatrophy, get better. They have gotten thicker around the middle, but no returning fat in the face, arms or butt.
Keep trying Dr.
Estella, Abuja, 2008-05-15 07:02:15
comments 1 - 15 (of 22 total) next
How soon does one start experiencing Lipoatrophy. Started wtih Zerit in 2006 but recently was changed to retrovir for the reason that zerit causes lipoatrophy. Didnt know that both have the same effect? For now my tummy is growing bigger but the face not yet thin, legs
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