Viral Volunteers

January 5, 2012

Eva Gusnowski

Getting a cold blows, literally; you have to blow your nose 500 times a day to deal with all of that congestion! But some gutsy volunteers have been taking colds to a whole new level.

The University of Calgary is one of only two institutions in North America that are (legally) able to infect healthy volunteers with cold-causing viruses in order to make them sick. The hope is that if we can actually study what happens in humans during a viral infection, we may be able to prevent a large number of the symptoms.

Dr. David Proud infects volunteers with rhinovirus, which is responsible for nearly 1/3 of “common cold” infections. However, it is now recognized that rhinovirus also has an impact on asthma pathogenesis. Rhinovirus infections can be responsible for asthma development, exacerbation and even airway remodeling. This virus is also the dominant pathogen responsible for acute (i.e. short-term) exacerbations of asthmatic attacks. The virus likely achieves this by actually changing the biology of the skin cells that line the respiratory tract, meaning that it is actually capable of altering our cells!


papermen, rhinovirus, science in seconds

The skin (epithelial) cells that line the airway secrete important factors when they are infected known as cytokines. These factors help generate an immune response, resulting in inflammation and clearing of the infection, which in normal circumstances is good. However, in the airway inflammation can be a bad thing. Asthmatics are sensitive to changes in their airways already…its easy to imagine that any further inflammation/swelling will only close off the airway further and can greatly exacerbate symptoms.

By infecting healthy volunteers with rhinovirus, Dr. Proud and his colleagues are hoping to find out what is happening during the infection and what types of antivirals our bodies produce to fight off the infection. If those antivirals can somehow be boosted, it is feasible that these problems in asthmatic patients can be avoided, and may even prevent a large number of the symptoms that an otherwise healthy person would have to endure. Just think of it as finally being able to turn off that faucet of a nose.


common cold, rhinovirus

With all of this snot being produced in the lab, maybe Dr. Proud should start looking for funding from Kleenex. Or at least he could get a few boxes for free.



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