This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Posted: 7:08 PM- The humble rhinovirus, the 10-gene agent responsible for up to half of all cases of the common cold, is a hypnotist.
It makes a living, if you want to call it that, fooling the immune system by rendering white blood cells "sticky" or putting them to sleep so they can't alert the lymph nodes to the presence of a foreign organism.
Rhinoviruses aren't technically living things, but simply "a chemical gone bad," according to University of Utah scientist Fred Adler, who spoke today as part of the U.'s Science at Breakfast lecture series. By evolving rapidly and causing minimal damage to their hosts, rhinoviruses have earned the distinction of becoming nature's most successful pathogen.
Adler, an associate professor with the departments of mathematics and biology, is exploring what he calls mathematical ecology. He devises mathematical models to make sense of complex biological systems, such as viruses, "my current obsession," he told those attending his lecture, "Math: A cure for the common cold?"
Adler conceded math, or any other mode of inquiry, will not find a cure for the cold, but it will help us better understand rhinoviruses' evolutionary process. Ideally science will be able to track viral population dynamics and evolution in real time.
The rhinovirus attacks humans by inserting a piece of its DNA into a cell, turning it into a "slave factory" for viral production, Adler said. Within hours, the infected cell explodes, releasing hundreds of virions. The victim becomes symptomatic within eight hours.
The key to rhinoviral success is its tiny genome that can explore genetic space with an ease greater than almost any other organism. Their rate of genetic mutation is 100,000 times faster than humans', so rhinovirus evolution is measured in months rather than millennia.
They enjoy unparalleled biodiversity among microbes because their pathological process favors new types (which better evade immunological detection), but the old types stick around. Permanent immunity never arises from a rhinoviral infection, partly because this bug - unlike most other viruses- can't live in the acid environment found in the immunological oven called the gastro-intestinal tract.
As we age, we get fewer colds, but when we do get them, they last longer, said Adler, the author of the textbook Modeling the Dynamics of Life: Calculus and Probability for Life Scientists.
"Ten percent of your life is spent fighting colds," he said.
That may not necessarily be bad, however.
Adler concluded his talk, sponsored by the Salt Lake City law firm Holland & Hart, by pondering whether a cure or a vaccine against rhinovirus would even be helpful for human health because evidence suggests that colds, which are relatively harmless, "train the immune system to attack the things it is supposed to."
Scientists have documented greater auto-immune disease and allergies in those who suffered fewer colds as children, he said.