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Achoo! Research on Susceptibility to the Common Cold

February 28, 2013
Josephine P. Briggs, M.D.
Josephine Briggs, M.D.

National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

View Dr. Briggs's biographical sketch

In my talks to the scientific community, I often stress the importance of basic and translational research in creating a foundation for definitive clinical investigation. Developing insight into physiological effects and mechanism of action is critical to the scientific evidence base that guides clinical practice and public use, and it has the significant potential to inform other fields of biomedical research. I am pleased that NCCAM is supporting such important research.

A few days ago, findings from an NCCAM co-funded study by Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., and colleagues on the association between telomere length and susceptibility to the common cold were published in JAMA. Previous research has examined the association between having shorter telomeres and chronic disease, but this study is the first demonstration that telomere length influences susceptibility to an acute infection. Researchers measured the telomere length of white blood cells from 152 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 55 years. These individuals were then exposed to a rhinovirus and quarantined for 5 days to see if they actually developed an infection.

Participants with shorter telomeres were more likely to become infected by the virus, and interestingly, as participant age increased, telomere length became an even stronger predictor. In addition, telomere length of a specific type of white blood cell (a CD8CD28-  T-cytolytic cell) was a superior predictor of infection and cold symptoms than other white blood cell types. This is a preliminary study in a small sample, and the clinical implications are not yet known, but it’s this kind of research that helps us identify and gain a better understanding of biomarkers or other signatures of biological effect required to design and implement definitive tests of new interventions. Studies like this represent a key stage in translational research.

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