When will scientists cure the common cold?

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 16, 2018

Key Takeaways

Pharmaceutical companies have developed medicines for such common conditions as erectile dysfunction and, yes, eyelash insufficiency—but where’s the cure for the common cold?

The common cold costs the United States up to $40 billion per year (and that’s as of 2001). Indirect costs due to lost productivity from absences at work make up the majority: $22.5 billion. Direct costs include $7.7 billion for physician visits and $2.9 billion for over-the-counter drugs. The figure also includes $1.1 billion per year on an estimated 41 million antibiotic prescriptions, even though antibiotics have no effect on colds and contributing to antibiotic resistance is a considerable concern.

Antibiotics are useless because the common cold, as you know, is caused by viruses—principally rhinovirus, coronavirus, adenovirus, influenza and parainfluenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, and metapneumovirus. Although all these viruses cause colds (ie, viral respiratory tract infections), rhinoviruses are responsible for one-half to two-thirds of them.

One of the major barriers to finding a cure is simply the high number of virus strains—more than 200 serotypes of the above-named viruses cause the common cold, including more than 160 serotypes of rhinovirus alone. While the immune system can produce antibodies to any one individual strain of the virus after exposure, that immunity doesn’t transfer to other serotypes. Likewise, no vaccines have been effective because none has been able to prevent against multiple strains of infection.

So, scientists are now taking a different tack.

A work-around compound

Researchers at Imperial College London, London, United Kingdom, have developed a compound, IMP-1088, that targets an enzyme in the host cells that rhinoviruses need in order to build their defensive shells (capsids). IMP-1088 prevents the virus from taking away this enzyme, which therefore prevents replication of the virus and halts infection.


Because IMP-1088 targets a host factor—not the virus itself—it’s broadly active against all serotypes, and it’s unlikely to be overcome by resistance mutations in the virus, the authors explained in a recently published article in Nature Chemistry.

The compound inhibited not only cold viruses, but also other related types, including polio virus and foot-and-mouth-disease virus.

“A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection, and we are working on making a version that could be inhaled, so that it gets to the lungs quickly,” said researcher Ed Tate, PhD, professor of chemical biology, Department of Chemistry, Imperial College London.

Other investigators around the world are working on their own approaches to cure the common cold. “It is very difficult to put a timeframe on these things, but they are all probably about 5 to 10 years from potentially producing a viable treatment,” wrote Peter Barlow, PhD, associate professor, Immunology and Infection, and Director of Research of the School of Applied Sciences, Edinburgh Napier University, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Dr. Barlow is investigating antimicrobial peptides—which are key components of the innate immune system that have immunomodulatory and antiviral effects—as a novel cure for the common cold.

So, hang in there during cold season because, as you can see, research on the common cold is heating up.

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