Ah-Choo! Author Injects Herself With Cold Virus
Jennifer Ackerman discovers which medicines work, which are a waste of money.
Nov. 15, 2010— -- Jennifer Ackerman's writing experiment -- getting injected with the common cold -- was nothing to sniffle at. For three days, she was holed up in a three-star hotel so University of Virginia researchers could test a new nasal spray.
Ackerman chronicles what might have been a miserable weekend, "a hybrid of holiday, hospital, and prison," in her latest book, "Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold."
"My family thinks I've gone off the deep end," Ackerman writes. "My plan elicits this merry note from my dour sister: 'You know our family. It'll go straight to your chest.' One friend dubs it my weekend 'frolic at the rhinovirus festival.' 'Chin up!' he says. 'That way your nose won't drip.'
"Another friend takes a darker view. 'I'll keep you in my prayers: Death by cold is one of my greatest anxieties.'"
The common cold takes a $60 million annual toll on the United States: 100 million doctor visits, 1.5 million trips to the emergency room, 189 million school absences and hundreds of millions of lost work days.
Most Americans can expect up to 200 colds in their lifetimes, spending as much as five years in bed. Children can be felled a dozen times a year.
Scientists have wiped out small pox, discovered vaccines for polio and found cures for some cancers, but the crafty rhinovirus has baffled them.
Ackerman embarks on her experiment surrounded by young male students, "in cold pursuit of three free meals a day, a clean bed, and a $600 fee."
It's a random, double-blind study, which means she didn't know if she would receive the medicine touted as a cure, or just a placebo.
"It was kind of like expecting a hurricane or something," she said. "I ran around doing errands, expecting to feel lousy."
Turns out, she got a "real humdinger," that paralyzed her for two weeks.
"As a child I got really sick all the time with colds," said Ackerman, who has previously written about a day in the life of a body and heredity. "It's a mild illness that isn't insignificant in our lives."
"I got interested in the idea of why some people seem more susceptible than others," she said. "Some kids get sick all the time, and some adults, too. But some manage to escape with not many colds in a lifetime."
The cold is actually more than 200 different viruses, which is why it's hard to find a vaccine that can target all of them. Ackerman was injected with a virus called T39, which accounts for 40 percent of all colds.
Once exposed, a person is forever immune to it. That likely explains why children get more colds than adults.
Ackerman was paid $600 to participate in the study, not nearly as much as flu studies that yield $1,750 each.
On a Friday night in October, she hung her head over the side of the hotel bed while researchers put drops of T-39 in her nose.
"I imagine the little beasties getting straight to work," she writes. "The nose has virtually no protection against the virus once it is deposited on the nasal mucosa. Nearly everyone exposed to a cold virus in this direct fashion will get infected, provided they don't have antibodies."
In just a matter of minutes the virus lands in the nasopharynx, "what the 19th-century physician Sir William Osler called the 'garbage dump' of the throat, she says.
Ackerman colorfully describes the virus' path:
"There, in the soft tissue of the adenoids (aptly described as 'crypts'), the tiny invaders approach body cells a thousand times their size, like pirates in a small speedboat approaching an oil tanker. They get onboard by wily means, pretending to be something they're not. (Coast Guard? Tourists?) Cold viruses have evolved a specialized device for docking on a target host cell: little canyonlike grooves on their surface that fit perfectly with specialized receptors on the surface of your body cells (called ICAM-1 receptors). The fit is tight, like lock and key.
"Once the virus particles are docked, the sedition begins. They fool a body cell into thinking they're something useful, so the cell readily takes them in. And once they're onboard, like pirates, they take over the controls."