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Common cold can be surprisingly dangerous for transplant patients

Dr. Michael Boeckh

Like more 'serious' viruses, rhinovirus — the most common cause of the common cold — can be deadly to those recovering from transplantation, said Dr. Michael Boeckh, head of Fred Hutch's Infectious Disease Sciences Program.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

The common cold is a major source of annoyance for most of us, but new research has found that the most prevalent respiratory infection can be far worse than a stuffy nose for one sector of the population — bone marrow transplant patients.

These vulnerable patients, whose immune defenses have taken a dramatic double hit from both their original disease and the treatments required to repopulate their immune system with donor cells, are especially susceptible to a wide range of infections that typically don’t cause major problems in healthy people. But rhinovirus, the most common respiratory virus, has traditionally been overlooked in this population, said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center infectious disease specialist Dr. Michael Boeckh.

“This is such a prevalent virus … about 25 percent of stem cell transplant patients get infected [with rhinovirus] during the first year,” said Boeckh, who heads Fred Hutch’s Infectious Disease Sciences Program. “The virus was always considered kind of a common cold, a mild virus. People shrugged their shoulders, what should we do about it, it comes and goes.”

Now, a new study led by infectious disease researcher Dr. Sachiko Seo, formerly of Fred Hutch and now a physician at the National Cancer Research Center East in Chiba, Japan, and Boeckh and published last month in the journal Haematologica has found that like more “serious” viruses, rhinovirus can cause pneumonia — and when it does, it can be deadly to those recovering from transplantation.

The results not only point to the importance of strong infection prevention measures for transplant patients and better care for those with rhinovirus-related pneumonia but lend a rationale for drug companies and researchers to prioritize developing effective antiviral drugs for this most common of common cold-causing viruses, Boeckh said.

“Just to treat people like you and me who are irritated by the sniffles, that’s not good enough for the market,” he said. “For a company or anybody to step forward and say, ‘I’m going to make this a priority,’ you have to show that there’s a real disease.”

Full story in Hutch News