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25 Aug 2020

Cold and flu and the search for similarities to target for better treatment

Researchers want to know if cold and flu viruses have anything in common to target with vaccines or treatments.

There are more than 10 different respiratory viruses that can cause what we know as the common cold. And that cold can land people with emphysema, chronic obstructive lung disease, or any kind of pre-existing lung condition, in hospital.

University of Melbourne Professor Patrick Reading and his team are currently investigating whether this group of viruses share similarities with the influenza virus.

“We understand influenza virus pretty well, how it infects cells and spreads, but we don’t know so much about other respiratory viruses,” explains Professor Reading.

“We want to understand if cold viruses share some common mechanisms with influenza in how they grow and spread, which we could potentially target for a vaccine or treatment.

For example, can we turn on specific genes in a host cell that will protect against a whole range of respiratory viruses, including the flu?”

Most respiratory viruses target the cells lining the nose and lungs (epithelial cells). Inside the respiratory tract there are also a type of immune cell (macrophages) roaming around, chewing up debris, including viruses.

“If you put epithelial cells and macrophages side by side, influenza virus will infect them both, and then replicate and make hundreds to thousands of new viruses,” explains Professor Reading.

“But the difference is the macrophage won’t let the new viruses escape, whereas in an epithelial cell, one virus goes in and hundreds come out. The same is true for some of the other respiratory viruses that also infect humans.

“We want to know what it is about macrophages that stops viruses from escaping. If we can find particular genes that are important in blocking replication of influenza virus in macrophages, we’ll be looking to see if we can somehow turn these genes on in epithelial cells.

“We can then hopefully develop a strategy to stop respiratory viruses from growing in epithelial cells.”

This article was first published in the Celebrating five years of the Doherty Institute Impact Report.