We’ve been catching it since time immemorial — so why does the cure still elude us?
Have you ever had a cold? I certainly have. In fact, I have one right now, even though you (obviously) can’t tell.
I’ve had the common cold a lot: I have what seems like a particularly gullible respiratory system, and my immunity system is in turns both lacking and strangely overprotective. I have it so much, my mother likes to joke that I get it only twice a year, but that it stays for six months each time.
So I think I’m somewhat qualified to say that common cold and I have a special relationship. I even kind of like it — at least compared to some of the other stuff I’ve had over the years like viral flus, pneumonia, and chicken pox.
The common cold is almost a reliable old friend at this point.
But it really shouldn’t be.
When you read my last statement, you probably didn’t even blink. (I mean, you probably did blink, but I’m speaking metaphorically, here.) And why should you?
Plenty of people get colds, and plenty of people get colds all the time. There’s nothing unusual about me.
But what is unusual is the fact that I’m not unusual. If you think about it, think about how far human science and medicine have come in the last half-century, the fact that I catch colds all the time should be unusual.
We have vaccines for chicken pox, tetanus, rabies, and perhaps most successfully, polio. Even the flu, which shifts and mutates as often as once a year — most notably in 2009, when we saw the first cases of H1N1 flu— has a vaccine.
So, I ask the question again: why am I still catching a cold twice a year?
Perhaps the most misleading thing about the common cold is its name. The word ‘common’ implies something lowly, but, more importantly, it also implies something singular.
It couldn’t be more wrong.
The ‘common cold’ is really not common at all. Chances are, each cold I catch is entirely different from the ones I’ve caught before.
Colds are caused by any one of over two hundred viruses, belonging to one of seven families. The one thing that all these viruses have in common is the way they make you feel: the sore throat, the runny nose, the dull headache. That is to say, their common function is to attack cells in you respiratory, breathing, system.
The actual ways in which they go about doing this are all very different, so discovering one universal cure becomes much harder, if not impossible.
People have been trying to cure the cold for a long time.
The first attempt was in 1953, by an epidemiologist named Winston Prince. His interest was piqued when a handful of the nurses who worked with him all fell sick at the same time. He took samples from them and grew the culture in his lab, narrowing down to a virus known as a ‘rhinovirus’.
(The word ‘rhino’ is Latin for ‘nose’, and the reason you’re thinking of a thick-skinned grassland beast instead is that its full name, rhinoceros, refers to the ‘ceros’ or horn on its nose).
Winston Prince developed a vaccine for this virus, based on the principle that the body will create antibodies for any virus — dead or alive — that it encounters. He injected several hundred people with dead rhinovirus, then found that, on following up, they had significantly fewer colds than the rest of the population. He wrote a paper in 1957 describing his success, and in it, he named the strain ‘JH’ after Johns Hopkins — the university where he was working at the time.
Before long, however, other clinical trials came out. These new trials showed that the vaccine had little to no effect, suggesting there might be other strains around.
Over the course of the ’60s and ’70s, scientists steadily discovered more and more viruses. They found more families, apart from the rhinovirus— coronavirus, influenza and parainfluenza virus, adenovirus, respiratory syncytial virus, and metapneumovirus.
They found that, even within the rhinovirus, there were more than 160 separate strains, each needing a different vaccine. Injecting people with 160 different vaccinations each was always going to be impractical.
Scientists gave up on trying to cure the common cold. The last clinical trial was in 1975.
While rhinoviruses are different from one another, they’re also not. They all look like pom-poms under a microscope; They’re all, as Nobel Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar called them, “a piece of bad news wrapped in a protein coat”.
And it is the coat — the protein — that makes all the difference. Each strain has a slightly different composition of the proteins that make up its exterior, so the body and white blood cells don’t recognise a new one until it’s too late.
But, some scientists asked, just because the coats are a little different, does that mean that they are nothing alike?
That’s exactly the question Sebastian Johnston was asking when he took a second look at the rhinovirus. While an asthma specialist by trade, he did some work in the “Common Cold Unit” at Imperial College in London during his PhD years and was fascinated by the cold.
Johnson wondered if he might be able to isolate some structure that was common to all strains of rhinovirus, and then develop a vaccine based on that. It wasn’t an entirely novel idea: something similar had been done with the polio vaccine as well.
He approached Jeffrey Almond, newly-appointed head of vaccine development at the giant pharma company Sanofi Pasteur. Almond was interested, and the vaccine was further looked into. The team had some success with isolating a protein that was ‘on’ many of the serotypes (strains) of rhinovirus.
However, a series of unfortunate events led to the testing grinding to a halt in 2013. There was a change in management at the company, and Almond retired. Johnston’s vaccine had nowhere to go: Imperial College couldn’t itself fund the research.
But the moral of Johnston story is this: maybe there is hope. Maybe, just maybe, we may still be able to create a vaccine for the common cold. And maybe, just maybe, I can catch it just once a year instead of twice.
Other research has been done in recent years. Prominently, Martin Moore in Atlanta is revisiting the supposed impracticality of 160 vaccines; he thinks he might be able to combine them into a cocktail of sorts.
But we also have to think about the practicality of having a cold vaccine at all. To start with, big pharma companies, don’t like vaccines in general: they take years to develop, have to be sold for less, and more often than not, don’t even end up working.
In this case, it’s not clear whether anyone would use the vaccine, even if it came on the market. Most people who could afford the vaccine would generally be pretty healthy too. They’d get over the cold in the span of a few days, so why bother preventing it?
As for those who can’t afford the vaccine, they likely have bigger things to worry about. And by the time anyone, rich or poor, takes themselves to a doctor, it’s too late for the vaccine anyway. So that rules out most of the potential buyers.
Of course, it still leaves me.
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