OKC researchers study cold virus that threatens infants
Oklahoma City — A virus that typically causes mild cold-like symptoms might seem like an odd target for researchers at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, but this foe is more dangerous than it might seem.
Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is an annoyance for healthy adults, but it can cause pneumonia in infants or older people. Each year, about 58,000 children younger than 5 and 177,000 adults older than 65 are hospitalized as a result of RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 14,000 older adults die from it annually.
Researchers in Oklahoma City are trying to better understand why the virus is particularly dangerous to some people, and to develop a workable vaccine.
RSV has been a tough target for vaccines, said Dr. Robert Welliver, an infectious diseases specialist at the Children's Hospital at OU Medicine. An attempt in the 1960s backfired when children who received it got sicker than expected following an RSV infection. Subsequent trials have tried to balance weakening the virus enough that it can't make you sick, but not so much that the immune system ignores it, he said.
Right now, OU Medicine is one of several sites working on a vaccine that removes one crucial protein from the virus, Welliver said. The theory is that removing the protein would allow the virus to infect cells, so the immune system would respond, but not to reproduce, so it couldn't make someone sick, he said.
If they develop a promising shot, they could test it in model lungs currently being used to test why infants respond poorly to RSV.
Susan Kovats, a researcher at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, said Heather Fahlenkamp, a chemical engineer at Oklahoma State University, set up a very thin layer of lung cells from donated cadavers that simulates the wall of the lungs, with air on one side and a blood-like liquid on the other. Kovats will add the virus and immune cells collected from infant and adult patients to see how they react, she said.
The experiment is ongoing, but it appears that the immune cells from infants may not be as good at making interferon, a chemical that makes it harder for the virus to make copies of itself, as the adult cells, Kovats said. Without as much interferon, it's easier for the virus to spread through their lungs, she said.
“They haven't developed the ability to respond as an adult would,” she said.