Imagine if the common cold, something that affects billions of people every year, could be cured.
Perhaps we are a step closer to that dream.
Scientists say they’ve made a breakthrough by analyzing a ribonucleic acid (RNA) genome of the human parechovirus (HPeV), a virus that causes the common cold and polio, along with hand, foot, and mouth disease.
Experts say the news is promising, but curing the common cold is nothing to sneeze at.
Cracking the code
Scientists from the University of York, University of Leeds, and University of Helsinki, announced their findings in the journal Nature Communications.
“The common cold infects more than two billion people annually, making it one of the most successful viral pathogens, so we are excited to make this crucial step forward,” Professor Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York’s Departments of Mathematics and Biology, and the York Centre for Complex Systems Analysis, said in a release.
The breakthrough stems from the discovery of a “hidden code” found within HPeV that is responsible for formation of the virus.
Now that the code has been found, the research team is trying to figure out what drugs to use to target and destroy it.
“The coding works like the cogwheels in a Swiss watch,” Professor Peter Stockley from the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology at the University of Leeds, said in a release. “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.”
Dr. Andrew Nye, DO, of the Orlando Health Physicians Family Medicine Group, says the research is fascinating.
“The common cold is actually not just one virus, but a whole host of many different viruses,” he told Healthline. “One of the largest groups is the coronavirus, and there’s a number of different subviruses that belong to that family. So the researchers have identified a structural weak point, if you will, in terms of how all of these viruses package and assemble the shield around themselves. It’s very promising because if a medication could be developed to attack those specific sites, you would ideally be able to attack that whole family of viruses — not just one species, but many different species.”
Nye said it appears the researchers have identified some valuable targets.
“A medication or class of medications that attack these sites would likely be effective for a good amount of time, so that’s pretty exciting,” he said. “The more basic level you can attack a virus on, its basic level of construction, the more success you’re going to have.”
“Being able to target the cold virus would be brilliant,” Dr. Hilary Hawkins, of the Orlando Health Physician Associates, told Healthline. “I’m not sure if it’s possible because there are so many variants of the cold virus. It’s exciting that they’re looking into this as a possibility, but it’s very early.”
A persistent ailment
The common cold certainly lives up to its name. It’s very common.
The average adult gets two to four colds per year, while children typically get more. It’s the most frequent infectious disease in humans.
It’s a challenging illness because it presents differently depending on the individual patient, says Hawkins.
“It’s not just one discrete thing like strep throat or pneumonia,” she says. “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.”
The common cold’s diversity is one of the factors that makes it difficult to find a cure. Nye says realistically it’s unlikely that the common cold will ever be fully eradicated.
“The cold is not just one virus, it’s dozens and dozens of different viruses,” he says. “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. And at some point, likely, the coronaviruses will have some mutation that will benefit them to resist this medication or class of medications. Short-term, I think there’s a lot of benefit. In terms of elimination, no, that’s not really realistic, I don’t think, just because these viruses are so pervasive that you have to eliminate them on a global scale pretty much simultaneously, which is not going to happen.”
Giving it the cold shoulder
While everybody catches a cold now and then, there are precautions that can be taken to avoid it.
Hawkins says that washing your hands with soap and water is key, pointing out that the virus lives on surfaces that people are likely to be touching.
“I would say that most people seem to get sick when they travel,” she says. “Part of that is because you’re exposed to a whole new set of germs that you’re normally not exposed to. Also, people don’t realize the nastiness of planes. There have been studies done that show that the places where viruses — the cold virus especially — will stay is the tray tables. Wiping down your tray table, washing your hands before you eat if you can, and turning your body away from someone who’s coughing next to you are all key.”
If you do catch a cold, it’s important to monitor your symptoms so you can not only get healthy again, but avoid infecting those close to you.
Hawkins says that anyone who works with children or elderly people should exercise extra caution when it comes to returning to work.
“Certainly, if anyone has a fever, they should not be at work — and they shouldn’t be at work for at least a 24-hour period, until their fever has broken,” says Hawkins. “If you’ve been sick for two or three days, make sure to get rest and get plenty of fluids, but if you can work, you’re not necessarily putting anyone at danger.”