Does temperature affect the spread of the common cold?
Ellen Foxman, a postdoctoral fellow and Instructor in laboratory medicine at Yale University, is studying the way the rhinovirus travels.
Ellen Foxman is a research fellow and clinical instructor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine. Her research focuses on understanding what tips the balance towards health or disease when our bodies encounter viruses in the respiratory system. Dr. Foxman studied medicine and immunology and received M.D. and Ph.D. degrees at Stanford University, and completed residency training in clinical pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Dr. Foxman has been developing a research program to understand immune defense against rhinoviruses under the mentorship of Dr. Akiko Iwasaki at Yale since 2010.
Cold and The Common Cold
Most of us know that tiny germs called viruses cause colds when they get into our noses. But, even though we know a lot about these viruses, no one has found reliable way to prevent or cure the common cold.
However, our bodies do seem to be able to block viruses from causing colds—sometimes. Studies show that rhinoviruses, the most frequent perpetrators of the common cold, sometimes enter the nose without causing a cold. In fact, about 15% of healthy adults have rhinoviruses in their noses. Even when researchers infect volunteers with a rhinovirus, some people become ill and others don’t.
Can we figure out what tips the balance between health and illness when we encounter a cold-causing virus? In our research, this is exactly what we are trying to do. We believe that the key is to understand the natural defenses our bodies use to fight common cold viruses.
In a recent study, we approached this question by studying the cells that form the lining of the nose. Like all cells, these cells have a built-in immune system to fight viruses. First, we pinpointed which parts of this immune system machinery block rhinovirus from growing. Then, we looked at the effect of temperature.
In cells kept at the body temperature of 37°C (or 98.6°F ) the machinery required to block rhinovirus functioned very well. However, this particular machinery did not work as well if cells were cooled to 33°C (or about 91°F), a typical temperature found inside a nose inhaling cool air. As a result, the virus could thrive.
These findings show that the temperature is one factor, possibly one of many, which may tip the balance towards health or disease during rhinovirus infection. We believe that studying how our antiviral defenses work will bring a better understanding of common colds, and how to stop them, within our reach.