We all know the misery of the common cold.
The appropriately named common cold strikes the average adult two to three times per year, and children even more regularly.
Currently, there is no way to prevent a common cold, and once it has arrived, there is no way to get rid of it.
Despite the impressively high-tech world we are living in, medical research cannot yet defeat this foe. All we can do is treat its symptoms and hold tight until it has passed.
Why is the common cold difficult to tackle?
The common cold has evaded medical science's advances for two primary reasons. The first issue is that there is not just one single culprit. Colds are most often caused by a rhinoviruses — a large family of viruses with hundreds of variants. This makes vaccination an impossibility and gives our immune system a challenging task.
Secondly, these viruses evolve rapidly — so even if we could produce vaccines to cover the full spectrum of rhinoviruses, they would quickly become resistant.
Although dealing with a cold is not a huge issue for most people, there are good reasons to keep hunting for ways to fight it. One person involved in the hunt is Prof. Ed Tate, of Imperial College London in the United Kingdom. He explains the importance of battling the common cold:
"The common cold is an inconvenience for most of us, but can cause serious complications in people with conditions like asthma and [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]."
A new approach
The scientists were initially looking for a compound that would target a protein in malaria parasites. They found two likely molecules and discovered that they were most effective when they were combined.
Using advanced techniques, they combined the two molecules and produced a new compound that blocks an enzyme found in human cells, called N-myristoyltransferase (NMT).
Viruses normally steal NMT from human cells and use it to create a protective shell around their genetic information, known as the capsid. NMT is vital for the survival of cold viruses; without it, they cannot replicate and spread.
All strains of the common cold virus use this technique, so inhibiting NMT would scupper all strains of common cold virus. In fact, it should also work against the related viruses that cause foot-and-mouth disease and polio.
Also, because the molecule targets human cells rather than the virus, resistance would not be an issue. The team's findings were recently published in the journal Nature Chemistry.
The researchers have high hopes for the drug, which currently goes under the codename of IMP-1088.
"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."
Prof. Ed Tate
Though other drugs that target human cells in this way have been trialed before, IMP-1088 is "more than 100 times more potent" than its predecessors.
Also, earlier drugs designed to block NMT were too toxic to be of benefit. This new drug, however, did not damage cultured human cells. Of course, more research will be needed to confirm that the drug is safe for use.
Another concern is outlined by Prof. Tate, who explains, "The way the drug works means that we would need to be sure it was being used against the cold virus, and not similar conditions with different causes, to minimize the chance of toxic side effects."
So, we are not there yet, but we are as close as we have ever been to a cure for the common cold.