Scientists recreate rhinovirus infection in mice - hope of new asthma treatments

Scientists have been able to recreate rhinovirus infection, which is behind most common colds, in a small animal for the first time.

For fifty years since they were discovered, it had been thought that rhinoviruses could only infect humans and chimpanzees. But now a team of scientists led by Professor Sebastian Johnston at the MRC/Asthma UK Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma at Imperial College London, has been able to infect mice with rhinoviruses.

Rhinoviruses are an unwelcome inconvenience for the majority of the population as they cause around three quarters of common colds. However they can also have serious consequences. In susceptible people, they can be fatal. They can lead to the hospitalisation of infants, pneumonia in people with weakened immune systems and they trigger most asthma attacks. They are also the major cause of acute attacks of COPD (chronic bronchitis and emphysema), and are thus the major killer in these diseases.

Professor Johnston said:

“Until now it has not been possible to study rhinovirus infection in small animals. This has been a major obstacle to developing new treatments and there is currently no effective treatment for rhinovirus infection.”

It had been thought that mice and other small animals were resistant to rhinoviruses. Of the 100 known strains of rhinovirus, 90 per cent use a binding molecule, called ICAM-1 that is found on the surface of human cells, as their receptor. But the viruses are unable to bind to the mouse version of this receptor.

Professor Johnston explained:

"We previously found that once inside the mouse cell a rhinovirus reproduces itself as well as it does in human cells. But the virus couldn’t infect the mouse cell because the receptor (acting like a door key) couldn’t get into the cell.
“Now we’ve modified the mouse receptor so it is more like a human one. This means the virus can infect the cells of these modified mice.”

Professor Johnston added:

"We found that mice with the modified receptor were susceptible to infection with a rhinovirus. If combined with an allergen (ovalbumin which is found in egg white) that could cause an allergic reaction in the lungs, the virus could make the response worse and lead to an 'asthma attack'."

The team was able to observe that when the virus was combined with an allergic reaction, the mouse responded similarly to humans. This means it provides a good model for the study of severe asthma attacks.

"These mouse models should provide a major boost to research efforts to develop new treatments for the common cold, as well as for more potentially fatal illnesses such as acute attacks of asthma and of COPD."

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council, Asthma UK and GlaxoSmithKline.

The chief executive of the Medical Research Council, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz said:

“This important and fundamental discovery will enable us to understand the effects rhinoviruses and common colds have on our health. It will open up new paths to finding treatments which have been delayed for many years and provides us with the opportunities for further breakthroughs in the future.”

Leanne Male, Assistant Director of Research at Asthma UK commented:

‘‘Ninety per cent of people with asthma tell us that colds and flu triggers their asthma symptoms but as yet there is no specific treatment for virally induced asthma attacks and steroid treatments are only partially effective against them.  We welcome this latest advancement as it will lead to a greater understanding of viral infections and their link with asthma and may help the development of a suitable treatment for virus-induced asthma attacks, thus greatly improving the lives of the 5.2 million people with the condition in the UK.’’

Notes to editors

Journal details: Mouse models of rhinovirus-induced disease and exacerbation of allergic airway inflammation. Published online in Nature Medicine.

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact the Medical Research Council press office on 0207 637 6011, [email protected] or 07818 428 297 out of hours.

About the Medical Research Council

The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public’s needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world.

About Asthma UK

Asthma UK is the charity dedicated to improving the health and well-being of the 5.2 million people in the UK whose lives are affected by asthma.

For up-to-date news on asthma, information and publications, visit the Asthma UK website

For independent and confidential advice on asthma, call the Asthma UK Adviceline, which is staffed by asthma nurse specialists. It is open weekdays from 9am to 5pm on 08457 01 02 03. Or email an asthma nurse at

About Imperial College London

Imperial College London - rated the world's fifth best university in the 2007 Times Higher Education Supplement University Rankings - is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 12,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture. Website:

About GlaxoSmithKline
GlaxoSmithKline – one of the world’s leading research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare companies – is committed to improving the quality of human life by enabling people to do more, feel better and live longer.  For more information and the company’s product development pipeline, visit GSK at


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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