College students find themselves catching significantly more colds than they may have in their high school years as a result of close living quarters that spur the spread of viruses and sleep deprivation that lowers immunity, Sarah Van Orman, University Health Services executive director, said.
According to UW biochemistry professor Ann Palmenberg, who is leading a UW research team on the common cold, although three types of rhinoviruses cause about one-half of colds, a wide range of viruses can lead to colds.
“The viruses that cause the common cold are diverse, so making things both active and safe within the drugs that would cure it is difficult,” Palmenberg said.
Her team recently created a 3-D model of rhinovirus C, one of the subtypes.
While rhinovirus C has been in in the human body for a long time, it was just recently discovered and has been targeted as the reason why no cure for the common cold exists, Palmenberg said. Rhinovirus C differs from A and B in shape, structure and species, she said.
Shells called capsids protect viruses and they create a visible difference in rhinovirus C compared to A and B, Palmenberg said. From rhinovirus C’s physical appearance, researchers are able to discern what receptor it uses, which is how the virus enters the cell, Holly Basta, a UW research assistant, said.
Rhinovirus C species are difficult to grow and culture, and animal models are not possible because they only infect humans, making it difficult to conduct tests, Basta said.
“The problem that we started off with was that [rhinovirus C] can’t be grown in large enough amounts to see how the structure was different, so we used computational modeling methods to predict what the structure would look like,” Basta said.
That is why a model is key in this potential development, Basta said of the high-resolution model of rhinovirus C that was created by taking samples of the nasal mucus of people with colds.
A common misconception is that colds are caused by certain conditions, such as being outside when a person is cold and wet. However, colds are most commonly caught by touching surfaces that contain a virus, which is transferred by touching the eyes, nose or mouth, Van Orman said.
The number of colds does not increase in the winter because people get too cold, but because the air becomes less humid, which allows viruses to thrive, Van Orman said, adding people spend less time outside during winter and are exposed to more people closed into tight quarters.
The rhinovirus C model could be a grade-saver for college students that are so susceptible to the common cold, which studies have shown often negatively impacts schoolwork, Van Orman said.
“[The next step is to] start designing drugs that would fit into the model predicted. The model is now publicly available to be used biotechnically in labs,” Basta said.