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Is There a Possible Cure for the Common Cold?

You might have heard the half-joking lamentation, “We’ve put a man on the moon, but there’s still no cure for the common cold.” This could be changing!

Recently researchers from the University of York, the University of Leeds, and the University of Helsinki announced groundbreaking findings that could potentially lead to a cure for the common cold in the Nature Communications journal.

A Common but Complex Problem

The common cold is… well, it certainly isn’t rare! This appropriately named illness affects the average adult two to four times a year. Children get colds even more often; in fact, preschool-aged children tend to get them up to nine times a year and kindergarteners up to twelve times. That’s a lot of runny little noses!

Tissue box used by someone with the common cold

Even though the common cold usually isn’t serious (there are, of course, exceptions to this! You should always ask your doctor if you feel you’ve developed complications or something is wrong), it can definitely have a negative impact on your life. Not only does being sick make you feel physically bad, it can also lower your energy levels and make you feel emotionally drained. It can cause you to fall behind on work and feel stressed. When your kids get sick, the added emotional concern and time taking care of them can result in similar outcomes–not to mention that they might get you sick as well.

However, finding a cure to this common but unpleasant condition has been harder than the average person would guess.

Dr. Hilary Hawkins of the Orlando Health Physician Associates, explains that it’s a complex illness because symptoms can present themselves completely differently from patient to patient.

“It’s not just one discrete thing like strep throat or pneumonia. A cold can manifest itself as coughing and sneezing, or congestion, or a sore throat. The duration is different in everybody. It seems to target the immune system differently, to the point where it’s difficult to tease out exactly whether it’s a cold or something else,” she said.

Coming Close to Cracking the Code

Despite the challenges the common cold presents, scientists recently made a huge breakthrough by cracking a virus’s “hidden code” that is essential to its replication and assembly.

The work is a continuation of a 2015 discovery, when scientists at the University of Leeds and the University of York discovered a set of encrypted signals in a plant virus with a single-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA) genome. This discovery was relevant to human health because the genome is somewhat similar in structure to that of the Parechovirus, which can infect humans.

Human Parechovirus is a member of the Picornavirus family, which includes:

  • Common cold
  • Polio
  • Hand foot and mouth disease

It can also cause meningitis and sepsis-like illness in children.

Once the encrypted signals were discovered in the plant virus, researchers set out to crack the coding of the virus that affects humans. They used the previous research and mathematical modeling to find evidence that the virus relies on multiple dispersed sites across the genome. These sites communicate using an enigmatic code that enables the virus to replicate and assemble itself.

One amazing aspect of their discovery was that the decoding mechanism seems to be identical in all strains of the virus, and the gene coding is even conserved across different viruses in the same family. This means there is the potential for a single drug to treat them all!

“The coding works like the cogwheels in a Swiss watch. We now need a drug that has the same effect as pouring sand into the watch. Every part of the viral mechanism could be disabled,” said Professor Peter Stockley from the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology at the University of Leeds.

What this Means for the Future

“The common cold infects more than 2 billion people annually, making it one of the most successful viral pathogens, so we are excited to make this crucial step forward,” said professor Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York who led the research.

As we discussed earlier, a cure for the common cold would not only mean a boost in world health, but would also lift the slew of mental and emotional burdens that can come with it.

Doctor treats teenager with common cold symptoms

Stockley added, “We need to move away from a vaccine approach, which is what we have for flu and polio. Vaccines, although our best source of defence against polio at the moment, can result in the release of more virulent strains of the disease. Protecting against infection therefore relies on continued worldwide vaccination, which is both very expensive and logistically difficult.”

As exciting as this discovery is, the common cold is still pretty far from being “cured.” In fact, some researchers and physicians doubt the day will ever come.

“The cold is not just one virus, it’s dozens and dozens of different viruses,” said Dr. Andrew Nye, DO, of the Orlando Health Physicians Family Medicine Group. “Even if this medication or class of medications was successful against the host family of coronaviruses, you’re still going to have other viruses that this will not be effective for.”

However, Nye was far from dismissing the recent breakthroughs. He also said that he finds the research “fascinating” and “exciting,” with a lot of potential for short term benefit.

Conclusion

Depending on how further research and medical developments go, we could certainly have a cure for the common cold. Perhaps one day this widespread illness will cease to exist completely, perhaps we’ve only found the route to a cure for some instances of the common cold, and perhaps we’ll hit an unfortunate dead end with further explorations of these recent breakthroughs.

If curing the common cold is like running a marathon, we’ve certainly logged a couple miles, but the rest of the race is still to be determined. In the meanwhile, you can help protect yourself from the common cold by:

  • Washing your hands with soap and water
  • Turning away from anyone who is coughing/sneezing
  • Eating immune-system boosting foods rather than nutritionally empty choices

Catching a cold every once in awhile may be inevitable, at least for the time being. If you happen to have a common cold now, one of your options is participating in a clinical trial right here in the Birmingham area! We conduct ongoing clinical research on promising new treatments and need local superheroes to help save the day.

If you would like to see whether you qualify for a common cold clinical trial, you can sign up online. If you’d like to learn about some of the best (and worst!) treatments for the common cold, you can check out this blog post. Also please feel free to call us at (205) 757-8208 with any questions!

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