Cold virus may hijack body's own defences to worsen asthma symptoms

Breath test

Research has revealed an entirely new interaction between the cold virus and our immune system, which could help to explain how it causes worsening of asthma symptoms.

Rhinoviruses are the main cause of the common cold, and a major cause of asthma symptoms worsening as a result of an infection.

New research led by Dr Emily Swindle from the NIHR Southampton Respiratory Biomedical Research Unit, published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy, has revealed new insights into how these viruses interact with the immune system and has identified a new way they could aggravate asthma.

Invading the immune system

Mast cells are a type of white blood cell, part of our body’s immune system. Known to have a role in allergy, they are present in the lungs of patients with severe asthma in large numbers.

The researchers found that mast cells infected with rhinovirus in the lab sent out signals to alert the immune system and trigger a response. However, they also discovered the virus could replicate itself within mast cells unchecked, creating new viral copies that then burst out, destroying the mast cell in the process.

Fighting the infection

The researchers demonstrated that the cell signalling molecule IFN-β had a protective effect on mast cells, and identified it as a potential treatment for asthma patients to reduce exacerbations caused by these infections.

While these results are from experiments in the lab and have not yet been tested in patients, they help to explain how the virus exerts its effects, and identify a possible new treatment that could greatly improve the lives of those with severe asthma.

Posted on Monday 9 January 2017