Cold truths from the world of virology

At the Research Matters Curiosity Shop people ask questions they’d like Ontario university researchers to answer. Recently, a visitor to the Shop asked: “Can we ever cure the common cold?” Research Matters tracked down Ana Sanchez, an infectious disease expert and instructor of medical microbiology at Brock University to get some answers.

Spoiler alert: It does not sound as though the facial tissue and cough medicine industries are in any danger.

Research Matters:    Why is it so hard to find a cure for the common cold?  
Ana Sanchez:    The first reason is because the disease is not caused by a single pathogen. There are more than 100 types of rhinoviruses that cause the symptoms we have come to know as the common cold. Then we have adenoviruses, coronaviruses and other groups that cause colds as well. Within each group, many variations can occur, providing different qualities to viruses, to which we must adapt and so our immune system can react appropriately . It would be a challenge to find a drug or vaccine that targets of them.

So, the diversity of the pathogens is, is the first challenge.

RM:     What else?
AS: Another challenge is that these viruses change a lot. They mutate. So even if we were to create a treatment it would be like a moving target.  It would be like the influenza, where we have to make new vaccines the time. Unless scientist find a special part of the virus molecule; a molecule that is common to an entire group and does not change much, the challenge will remain.

RM: Are viruses more challenging to treat than bacterial infections?
AS: For the longest time we were not able to create drugs to treat viral infections because scientists couldn’t identify a particular physiological aspect of a virus they could target. Bacteria are cells – living organisms with active metabolisms. They have membranes, cytoplasms, and nuclei we could decipher. We understand them better, which makes them easier to fight.

With viruses, we now know we’re not targeting live cells. Viruses are actually not “alive” although they carry a code for life. They don’t replicate by themselves, they don’t have metabolism.  They are the ultimate parasites and need to colonize a cell to do that, right?  So even when we may have drugs to inactivate viruses, because they live inside our cells, many time we end up damaging our own cells as well. As biotechnology advances, however, scientist are more able to conceive drugs or treatments to fight viruses off without causing too much damage to the patient.

Now, not viral infections are difficult to deal with. Some viruses, like hepatitis B are very stable, so it was possible to create a vaccine you can trust. It depends on the virus.

RM: Can scientists learn anything from the human immune system about curing colds?
AS: They could, but that’s really beside the fact. We get an infection, and our body successfully deals with it within a few days. We mount a strong cellular and antibody response and end up winning the battle.

But then we get another virus and another. There’s no end to the diversity of cold viruses.

RM: So, what’s the long-term prognosis for a cure?
AS: Curing the common cold is a terrible challenge. And remember that it is not really a severe disease. For most people, it is a nuisance. There’s a lot of people with the illness, but it’s not like influenza or other respiratory diseases that tend to be more serious. And even if there was a vaccine that worked for some cold viruses, it’s going to be hard to convince people that the vaccine works because they will get another cold from another virus and think, ‘Well this vaccine didn’t work well.’

RM: Is this just a never-ending battle, then?
AS: Each time there is a medical advance in virology – like the way we’re starting to better control HIV – we think we’re winning the battle against infectious agents. We have better drugs and people are living longer.  Then, boom, there’s something else.

Take Ebola. In the mid-1970s, Ebola became an issue for a period of time, and then we heard nothing for years. We thought maybe it was just a fluke. And then just comes back.

Of course, living a healthy life with good nutrition and good rest will improve your immune system to fight pathogens. And fighting pathogens (most of the time successfully) is something that we humans have been doing forever…

We are born with an immune system exactly because we need to fight these pathogens.  It’s there for a reason. But the other side is also always going to be there.

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Let shopping be your ...

Noreen Fagan | December 18, 2014

Here’s a fun fact – Canadians eat more sushi than the Japanese. At least that’s what Mark Cleveland says, and he should know. Cleveland is a professor of marketing at Western University. His research focuses on the integration of cultures on a global scale and the effects of cosmopolitanism, which according to Cleveland is, “the cultural openness and the ability to successfully navigate between different cultural groups.” In other words, people who want to understand and experience other cultures do so by fully immersing themselves in that culture. “You want to live the life of cultural authenticity, by trying to understand the culture through that culture’s eyes,” he says. Cleveland’s interest in cultural openness started when he was a Master’s and then a Ph.D. student at Concordia University in Montreal. He started researching how new immigrants, primarily ethic minorities, adapted to Canadian culture by finding ways to combine their traditional identities, culture and values into mainstream society. “I have always believed that just because you learn another culture does not mean you give up the original culture. You can be bicultural or multicultural and the two can reinforce each other,” says Cleveland. “Not only are minorities affected by cultural exchange but the majority are as well.” Canada’s multiculturalism prompted Cleveland to extend his research into globalization, with a focus on how global cultures affect majority populations around the world. In the last decade Cleveland has conducted research in 15 to 20 countries exploring cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism. He says a person no longer has to travel abroad – although it helps – to become cosmopolitan. A person can experience different cultures in the comfort of their own home or neighbourhood, simply by watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing videos on You Tube or buying and consuming different products. “When we buy products, and types of brands and the reasons for buying them, they are like extensions of ourselves,” he says. So how do the sushi–eating Canadians fit into all of this? Cleveland believes if a person wants to experience cultural authenticity they will gear their shopping towards achieving that aim. In other words, a person is not going to go for the North American version of sushi (think Californian Roll), when they can get the real thing – think Unagi. He says there is probably a general global trend towards cultural openness as people become more educated and have more exposure to other cultures but he warns, there is another side. “A lot of people are really opposed to what is happening with Globalization and they see their culture as under threat,” says Cleveland adding that the threat is heightened when people feel insecure. If people are feeling secure in their surroundings (financially, emotionally and physically), the more open they are to cultural exchange and the more cosmopolitan they become. Being cosmopolitan however, does not mean buying local is a thing of the past; in fact what makes cosmopolitans stand out is that they strive for cultural authenticity. “The more cosmopolitan you are means you are not only interested in preserving differences but also interested in the environment, like getting the best locally,” says Cleveland. In terms of cosmopolitanism Cleveland thinks Canadians are more accepting of other cultures. “We are a new country, most of us go back two or three generations and have one or two grandparents born somewhere else. We have a more fluid identity,” he says, adding that as large cities go, Toronto is well integrated. “We are not just living in these areas dominated by our own ethic group, there are more opportunities to mix, and I think that allows us to become more open-minded.”

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A miraculous trip for ...

Carleton University staff |

While on a 2011 research trip to North Western Saudi Arabia, Carleton University Religion student, Anik Laferriere was exploring a remote part of the Ḥismā sand desert in North-West Arabia. This desert is home to the mystical and isolated temple of al-Ruwāfa. She stumbled on something extraordinary… Ruwāfa is a small, well preserved second-century structure that is a one-off in the vastness of the North-West desert of Arabia. Despite being close to water supplies (but little else), there is no evidence of any substantial human settlement at the site. Why this temple was built in such a seemingly impractical area has been a point of debate amongst researchers for a very long time. Astoundingly, the obscure location of this temple is only one aspect of its exceptionality. Even more remarkable are five Greek and Nabataean inscriptions that describe the structure as being constructed during the reign Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus. These inscriptions make the temple a dramatic attestation of Roman interaction in the Middle East. While inspecting the site in 2011, Laferriere tripped over a castaway stone. As she collected her belongings, she instinctively took a look at the culprit. She noticed a Greek inscription on the stone. Naturally, she shouted to her trusted colleague, mentor, and traveling companion, Greg Fisher, a professor from Carleton’s College of Humanities. Laferriere and Fisher analyzed the stone, and were quick to note its unusual Roman markings. Little did they know, this rock would unlock a missing piece of an archeological puzzle that has baffled al-Ruwāfa researchers for more than a half-century. Later, Fisher was editing a contribution for his new book Arabs and Empires Before Islam from one of the world’s foremost epigraphy experts, Michael C.A. Macdonald. Only then did he realize that he and Laferriere might have literally stumbled on a profound discovery. In the draft of his contribution to Fisher’s book, Macdonald wrote about a lost inscribed stone that was last seen in 1956/7, when celebrated British explorer, St. John Philby, had copied it. In Macdonald’s research, he included a note that Philby had drawn of the stone. Its current location, though, was a mystery. Fisher recalled the Ruwāfa stone. It matched Macdonald’s description . “The discovery of the 'lost stone' was very exciting," said Fisher. "a completely new edition of the Ruwāfa inscriptions was prepared for my book. Michael Macdonald had only the drawing made by Philby in 1957. We realized that in my stash of photos was something quite exciting,” said Fisher. Fisher and Laferriere were likely the first two people to realize the whereabouts of the stone in decades. “The serendipity of the discovery seems incredible to me,” said Laferriere. “We were unaware at the time that it held any significance whatsoever, except as an example of Roman presence in the area. When we found out, we could not believe our luck!” Thanks to the meticulous assistance of Macdonald, they were confirmed in 2014 that the impression found by Laferriere and Fisher was indeed Philby’s lost stone. Referred as “Inscription III,” it is the third of five Greek and Nabataean Ruwāfa inscriptions that serve as attestation to Roman interest in Saudi Arabia. The set of inscriptions refer to the erection of the temple of al-Ruwāfa by a group of people called Thamud. This nomadic tribe had encountered the Assyrians in the late eighth century, BC and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius and co-emperor Lucius Verus. The long-lost third engraving mentions of Verus who died in 169, meaning that the inscription was forged prior to this date. All inscriptions, save Inscription III, are currently displayed in the Riyadh museum. The artifact has sparked many new questions about the site, the historical significance it holds, and how it will shape our understanding of early Roman political and diplomatic interest in the Arabian Peninsula. Fisher’s forthcoming book, (Oxford University Press 2015), will address these questions, and include a new reading of the group of inscriptions by Macdonald. The text will be accompanied by new drawings of the temple. Arabs and Empires Before Islam will function as the most up-to-date version of this influential inscription and will offer readers a the most complete version of this important testament ever. Fisher hopes that this miraculous series of events will remind burgeoning researchers that unearthing the past is not always predictable. “From the perspective of a teacher, the discovery shows students that while the material is most certainly ancient, new discoveries can and do happen all the time – and sometimes, quite by accident,” said Fisher.   This story was originally published by Carleton University. It has been edited for style, length and clarity, and is republished here with permission. 

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