Thursday, February 12, 2009
Cure for the Common Cold? Not Yet, but Possible
Curing the common cold, one of medicine’s most elusive goals, may now be in the realm of the possible.
Researchers said Thursday that they had decoded the genomes of the 99 strains of common cold virus and developed a catalog of its vulnerabilities.
“We are now quite certain that we see the Achilles’ heel, and that a very effective treatment for the common cold is at hand,” said Stephen B. Liggett, an asthma expert at the University of Maryland and co-author of the finding.
Besides alleviating the achy, sniffly misery familiar to everyone, a true cold-fighting drug could be a godsend for the 20 million people who suffer from asthma and the millions of others with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The common cold virus, a rhinovirus, is thought to set off half of all asthma attacks.
Even so, it might be difficult to kindle the interest of pharmaceutical companies. While the new findings are “an interesting piece of science,” said Dr. Glenn Tillotson, an expert on antiviral drugs at Viropharma in Exton, Pa., he noted that the typical cost of developing a new drug was now $700 million, “with interminable fights with financiers and regulators.”
Because colds are mostly a minor nuisance, drug developers say, people would not be likely to pay for expensive drugs. And it would be hard to get the Food and Drug Administration to approve a drug with any serious downside for so mild a disease.
Carl Seiden, president of Seiden Pharmaceutical Strategies and a longtime industry analyst and consultant, said industry might be loath to wade in because Relenza and Tamiflu — two drugs that ameliorated flu but did not cure it — were huge commercial disappointments.
The industry has also learned in recent years that turning a genetic discovery into a marketable drug is far harder than once thought.
Still, if the discovery could lead to an effective drug to treat the common cold, “that’s a big deal,” Mr. Seiden said.
Industry hurdles aside, perhaps the biggest reason the common cold has long defied treatment is that the rhinovirus has so many strains and presents a moving target for any drug or vaccine.
This scientific link in this chain of problems may now have been broken by a research team headed by Dr. Liggett and Dr. Ann C. Palmenberg, a cold virologist at the University of Wisconsin.
The researchers, who conducted the genetic decoding with the aid of Dr. Claire Fraser-Liggett at the University of Maryland, published their insights into the rhinovirus on Thursday in the online edition of Science.
Dr. Fernando Martinez, an asthma expert at the University of Arizona, said the new rhinovirus family tree should make it possible for the first time to identify which particular branch of the tree held the viruses most provocative to asthma patients.
If antiviral agents could be developed against this group of viruses, Dr. Martinez said, “it would be an extraordinary advance.”
Another asthma expert, Dr. E. Kathryn Miller at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville, said the new finding was “a groundbreaking study of major significance.” READ