University of Calgary

Cold and flu

Oct. 24, 2008

Common cold symptoms caused by immune system—not the cold virus

David Proud presents data from his rhinovirus infection study. / Chris Kindratsky photo

David Proud presents data from his rhinovirus infection study.
/ Photo by Chris Kindratsky

A University of Calgary scientist confirms that it is how our immune system responds, not the rhinovirus itself that causes cold symptoms. Of more than 100 different viruses that can cause the common cold, human rhinoviruses are the major cause.

The research, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, is the first study to comprehensively review gene changes in rhinovirus. “The study’s findings are a major step toward more targeted cold prevention and treatment strategies while also serving as a valuable roadmap for the broader respiratory science community,” says David Proud, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the Faculty of Medicine, and lead author of the study.

Proud adds that while colds are usually considered to be minor infections of the nose and throat, they can have much more serious health repercussions. “Rhinovirus is the major cause of the common cold, but it is also an important pathogen in more serious conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” Proud says.

For example, children who get recurrent rhinovirus-induced wheezing in early life are 10 times more likely to develop asthma. Rhinovirus infections are also a major cause of acute attacks of asthma and COPD and, therefore, exert a huge impact on health care costs.

The study was done in collaboration with scientists at the University of Virginia and the Procter & Gamble Company. Dr. Ron Turner, of the University of Virginia, is one of the study’s authors. He says, “Advances in our understanding of the biology of the common cold may eventually lead to improvements in treatment or methods for prevention of colds.”

In the past, researchers have measured specific compounds made by the body that may protect against a cold or may be triggered by a cold virus. This is the first time anyone has conducted a comprehensive assessment of what happens when a rhinovirus infects a person. This is also the first time researchers have established that a recently discovered antiviral protein called viperin plays a role in our body’s defense against rhinovirus. That discovery will lead scientists to targeted study and treatments against the common cold.

This assessment of gene changes was conducted using gene chip technology, performed by scientists at Proctor & Gamble. With this technology scientists can see every gene in the human genome, and see how genes respond to a stimulus, in this case a cold virus.

The results of this study will open new lines of investigation into how rhinovirus impacts asthma and COPD. A new Experimental Lung Research Suite at the University of Calgary will be integral to developing new research strategies to aid patients with asthma and COPD.

David Proud is a member of the Calvin, Phoebe and Joan Snyder Institute of Infection, Immunity and Inflammation He is a Canada Research Chair in Inflammatory Airway Diseases. His research is supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Full text of the article available at

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