Virus might explain respiratory ailments

Three years ago, researchers in the Netherlands isolated a novel virus from children who had cold and flu symptoms but no sign of a typical cold or flu virus. The scientists named the mysterious pathogen human metapneumovirus. A study in the United States has now found the same virus present in many respiratory infections that had previously gone unexplained.

When the Dutch discovery became public, researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville began looking for evidence of human metapneumovirus in patients at a Vanderbilt clinic. After examining nasal-swab samples taken from children between 1976 and 2001, the researchers identified 248 children who tested negative for a cold or flu virus yet had symptoms of lung congestion.

Further analysis showed that 20 percent of these children tested positive for human metapneumovirus, says study coauthor James E. Crowe Jr., a viral immunologist at Vanderbilt. That same subset of children displayed coughing, runny nose, fever, wheezing, and a crackling sound in the lungs.

The study doesn’t prove that human metapneumovirus causes lower-respiratory disease. But the findings suggest that the microbe underlies many infections not attributable to cold and flu viruses. The study appears in the Jan. 29 New England Journal of Medicine.

In a separate analysis, the researchers found that the virus also cropped up in 15 percent of samples from children with upper-respiratory infections, akin to head colds, who had tested negative for viral infections. Many of these children also had ear infections.

If a commercial diagnostic test can be developed for human metapneumovirus, Crowe says, infected people could be isolated in clinics and hospitals to slow the spread of the virus.

What’s more, Crowe notes, by using surface proteins from the virus, researchers might even be able to devise a vaccine against it.

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