Curing the common cold, one of medicine’s most elusive goals, may now be in the realm of the possible.
Researchers said Thursday that they had decoded the genomes of the 99 strains of common cold virus and developed a catalog of the virus’ vulnerabilities.
“We are now quite certain that we see the Achilles heel, and that a very effective treatment for the common cold is at hand,” said Stephen B. Liggett, an asthma expert at the University of Maryland and co-author of the finding.
Besides alleviating the achy, sniffly misery familiar to everyone, a true cold-fighting drug could be a godsend for the 20 million people who suffer from asthma and the millions of others with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The common cold virus is thought to trigger half of all asthma attacks.
Even so, it might be difficult to kindle the interest of pharmaceutical companies. While the new findings are “an interesting piece of science,” said Dr. Glenn Tillotson, an expert on antiviral drugs at Viropharma in Exton, Pa., he noted that the typical cost of developing a new drug is now $700 million, “with interminable fights with financiers and regulators.”
Because colds are mostly a minor nuisance, drug developers say, people would not be likely to pay for expensive drugs. And it would be hard to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a drug with any serious downside for so mild a disease.
Carl Seiden, president of Seiden Pharmaceutical Strategies and a longtime industry analyst and consultant, said industry might be loath to wade in because Relenza and Tamiflu — two drugs that ameliorated flu but did not cure it — were huge commercial disappointments.
The industry has also learned in recent years that turning a genetic discovery into a marketable drug is far harder than once thought.
Still, if the discovery could lead to an effective drug to treat the common cold, “that’s a big deal,” Seiden said.
Industry hurdles aside, perhaps the biggest reason the common cold has long defied treatment is that the rhinovirus has so many strains and presents a moving target for any drug or vaccine.
This scientific link in this chain of problems may now have been broken by a research team headed by Liggett and Dr. Ann C. Palmenberg, a cold virologist at the University of Wisconsin.