While the world in the past century has been focused on Smallpox, Polio, AIDS, and Ebola, simple ailments like the common cold and flu have taken a backseat. We catch it in school, the workplace and even the grocery store. It takes people out for a couple of days sipping soup, watching TV, taking over the counter cold medicine, and going through boxes of tissues. Then, we recover, and life goes on.

COVID-19 changed all that. The common cold is a COVID virus. COVID-19 is much more deadly. Suddenly, we have all learned more about viruses. What are they? And many scientists, researchers, and doctors are taking notice.

A study out of WSU, is shedding new light on how viruses work. Human Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is becoming more widely recognized by the general population as a problem with children. It is so common in children that most have been infected before the age of two. It also affects the elderly. It causes infection of the lungs and respiratory tract and mimics a cold and has similar symptoms to COVID-19. While most cases are mild and never diagnosed, severe cases can lead to pneumonia and be fatal.

Dr. Santanu Bose, a virologist and a professor of infectious diseases at WSU has been studying respiratory viruses for more than two decades. Recent study from his lab has identified a specific viral protein that evades the body’s natural defense mechanism.

Kim Chiok, a Fulbright Scholar from Peru who completed her Ph.D. at WSU, has spent the past two and a half years in the Bose laboratory exploring the mechanisms that regulate the virus-host battle. There is a continuous battle between the virus and the host, whereby virus utilizes various tools to thwart host’s defense apparatus, while at the same time, the host also uses various mechanisms to eliminate viral dominance in infected cells. The result of this raging battle determines the outcome of the viral disease. In simple terms, our bodies when attacked by viruses sends an alarm to a protein known as Beclin-1 which is a component of natural defense mechanism. With the NS2 protein present in the virus, our bodies fight excessively, and end up initiating an exaggerated inflammatory response. Without the NS2 protein, the body fights in a controlled fashion to block virus infection and thus, avoids the major inflammation that causes diseases like pneumonia.

The NS2 protein has been identified as the culprit. “Exaggerated inflammation clogs the airways and makes breathing difficult,” said Kim Chiok, a WSU post-doctoral researcher who led the study. “This is why people who have these long-term and severe inflammatory responses get pneumonia and need help breathing, and it’s why they end up in the hospital in the ICU.”

When asked if the door is cracked open to a cure for the common cold, Dr. Bose said emphatically no. There is no silver bullet. He explains that viruses have been with us since the beginning of time, and the goal is to “advance our understanding of the mechanisms so we can target them and build on our fast-tracking knowledge to hopefully develop effective therapeutics to combat them in the near future.”

When asked why he does this, his response is amazingly simple, “it’s fun.”