December 13, 2017

Feel that familiar tickle in your nose? You may be coming down with the common cold – a virus that has been afflicting humans for thousands of years.

One of the most ubiquitous illnesses, human rhinovirus (HRV) is responsible for more than 50% of cold-like illnesses and billions of dollars annually in medical visits and missed days of work. Yet, despite its prevalence and a nearly 60-year search, there is still no cure for the common cold.

But while most humans recover from the common cold in about seven days, a recent discovery of rhinovirus in chimpanzees resulted in a nearly 10% fatality rate. This is the first time scientists have seen rhinovirus cross the species barrier.

“It was completely unknown that rhinovirus could infect anything other than humans.” said Tony Goldberg, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine. “It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright.”

The outbreak occurred in a chimpanzee community in Kibale National Park, Uganda. Of the 56 animals, five chimps between the ages of two and 57 died. A local veterinarian obtained a fecal sample from a deceased chimpanzee, allowing UW scientists to discover that the virus originated from a human cold host.

“We expected to see changes all over the genome,” said Ann Palmenberg, a UW-Madison professor of biochemistry. “But it is not a chimp-adapted virus.”

This discovery means that chimps are genetically predisposed to rhinovirus C, a particularly severe form of the common cold. This virus primarily affects young children with susceptible receptors, or “locks” that allows viruses to enter and infect cells.

“The virus found in Betty (a two-year old chimp) was one that looked like it came from a human, and the level of virus in the lung was comparable to what we see in children,” said James Gern, a Professor of Allergy and Immunology in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “There’s a species-wide susceptibility of chimps to this virus,” added Goldberg.

This discovery could have a major impact on scientist and zoologists alike. Goldberg suspects that rhinovirus C may have been overlooked for decades as a cause of chimpanzee death. Now, scientists are more motivated than ever to find a cure to the common cold both for humans and their counterparts in the wild.

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