GALVESTON, Texas – There is no vaccine and no antiviral treatment for it, but if you were to check, just about every two or three-year-old child in the U.S. has been infected by respiratory syncytial virus.
While for many the virus, discovered in 1957 and known as RSV, will cause mild, cold-like symptoms, for some infants and older adults, an infection can cause hospitalization and, especially in developing countries, even result in death.
That is why, at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, a team of scientists and physicians headed by Dr. Roberto Garofalo, professor of pediatrics, Vice Chair for Research, and Director of the Divisions of Clinical and Experimental Immunology and Infectious Diseases, are looking at the different ways RSV spreads in the body, causes inflammation, and may even be connected to the development of asthma later in life. The work is part of a five-year, approximately $8.7 million program project grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This grant was renewed for the third time by the NIAID and continues 11 years of work totaling $25 million, to investigate inflammation and lung disease
“We are focusing on RSV now because there is no vaccine or good therapeutic,” Garofalo said. “We need to understand this virus better if we are going to come up with better therapies for it.”
The grant will fund three main projects, a patient core that will enroll a cohort of young infants hospitalized with RSV infections, and administrators to coordinate the projects and report to the NIH.
One of the projects, led by Dr. Antonella Casola, a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at UTMB, will look at how the body’s own early antiviral response, which normally help containing the spread of a virus, actually contributes to enhance lung damage and inflammation and is associated with a more severe disease.
Dr. Allan Brasier, who was the previous co-principal investigator with Garofalo of this program project, leads another project. Brasier, now senior associate dean for clinical and translational research at the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, will explore the connection between children who have severe cases of RSV infection and the likelihood of developing asthma later in life.
“It is possible that the viral infection in susceptible infants can drive the remodeling of airways that result in asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions,” Garofalo said.
Dr. Istvan Boldogh, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at UTMB, will lead a third project, which will look at how RSV may lead to genetic modifications and DNA repair that favor acute or chronic inflammation and airway remodeling.
The work will involve a mix of disciplines and will range from basic science research in the lab to working with patients, Garofalo said.

“This is a bright example of multi-disciplinary science,” Garofalo said. “These are scientists and medical experts all working together in labs and with patients to understand how this virus causes acute and predispose to chronic lung disease and hopefully, someday, coming up with therapeutics or even a vaccine.”