A cure for the common cold at last...and why it's taken this long

Learning there's no cure to the common cold is many people's first introduction to the frustrating limits of medical science. A new breakthrough could prove that old saying wrong.

This new finding basically involves supercharging the immune system. Cambridge researchers discovered it's actually possible for viral anti-bodies to follow the virus into the body's cells, at which point they can go about fighting the infection. Previously, it was thought the only way to stop a cold was to prevent it from infecting you in the first place, and once infection had occurred, you just had to let the cold run its course.

Lead researcher Leo James explains what this could mean:

"The beauty of it is that for every infection event, for every time a virus enters a cell, it is also an opportunity for the antibody in the cells to take the virus out. That is the key concept that is different from how we think about immunity. At the moment we think of professional immune cells such as T-cells [white blood cells] that patrol the body and if they find anything they kill it.

This could make it possible to create antiviral drugs that essentially kick the cell's natural virus-killing mechanisms into overdrive, sending in a wave of fresh antibodies that can help kill off the virus after the point of infection. Right now, these results have only been demonstrated with human cell cultures from laboratories, and the next step will be to demonstrate this effect in animals. You can check out Gizmodo for more on the finding.

So why isn't there a cure for the common cold? There are a couple reasons for this. Viruses in general are very difficult to entirely eradicate, and there are no known antibiotics that have any effect on the cold virus. In fact, these wouldn't even be a good idea as a placebo, because their side effects would actually be harmful to anyone who took them. Analgesics and certain pain-relievers can help manage the symptoms, but all they do is reduce the severity and length of the infection, not cure it entirely. While plenty of rest and water can help, again, that's just sensible management of symptoms, not a cure.

A cold vaccine is also thought to be a non-starter. The problem is that colds only offer very short-term immunity against a later infection, so it would be pretty much impossible to create a vaccine that could confer any long-lasting resistance to the disease. It doesn't help that there are about 200 different cold-causing viruses.

Economic and practical considerations also factor into this. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars in research and development to create a new drug, and that means the cold drug would be very expensive, at least at first. Would you pay more than a hundred dollars just to cure a mild inconvenience that goes away in a few days anyway? Drug developers are betting against that, so there's not a lot of motivation to put a lot of energy into finding a cure, particularly when there are much more promising avenues of research for deadly serious diseases like AIDS or cancer.

[Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences]