Why Hasn't the Common Cold Been Eliminated?

Updated: Sep 16, 2018

Why Hasn’t the Common Cold Been Eliminated From Society?

The Common Cold. It is a malady that affects the majority of the population. This illness is the most prevalent during the winter season and the beginning of spring, with people spending more time indoors, exposing themselves to the germs of others. Symptoms of this disease include runny nose, scratchy throat, and non-stop sneezing. According to the CDC, this illness causes 22 million missed school days in America, 126 millions work days missed due to caring for sick children, and 70 million workdays missed by employees who are affected by the sickness. Thus, it is evident that this disease affects many people in the U.S.. However, when looking at other examples of diseases that were common in recent history, we find that many of them have been virtually wiped out in western civilization. With the explosion of new technology, researchers are able to create viable vaccines for these illnesses. Then why is the common cold still ubiquitous in society?

To answer this question, we must look more closely at this illness. The common cold results from a virus infecting your body. There are over 200 different viruses that can cause a cold but it is primarily the rhinovirus that induces the prevalent form of the common cold, that experienced by most of us. This pathogen infects its host body by hijacking the upper respiratory system, inserting its genome into the cells of the human body. Using this system, the virus is able to quickly increase its population, making it hard to dispose of. The mechanism of this system is simple. The virus begins by attaching itself to specific receptors on the cell’s membrane. Then, it injects its DNA into the DNA of its host cell, and seizes the cell’s functions. This infected cell produces more viral material which creates more of itself, ending with the death of the cell.

Surprisingly, the rhinovirus is the smallest pathogen relative to the other pathogens that cause colds. Despite its size, the rhinovirus causes up to three-quarters of colds in adults. It is the most pernicious of the cold viruses. Because the virus results in a massive loss of productivity and--in the worst case--even death, researchers have tried many times to produce a vaccine that would render the rhinovirus ineffective. However, this process of creating such a vaccine is not as simple as it seems.

The first attempt to create a vaccine for the rhinovirus was conducted in the 1950s. Unfortunately, this attempt was a failure as patients that received the vaccine were just as easily susceptible to the virus than those who had not been administered the vaccine. Further investigation into why the vaccine had zero effect on the patients revealed a shocking detail. There are over 100 serotypes (a serologically distinguishable strain of a microorganism) of rhinoviruses. Thus, a vaccine for a single strain would not properly protect a patient from the virus.

The revival of the search for a vaccine began with a researcher named Sebastian Johnston. Johnston was an asthma and respiratory medicine specialist who developed a technique called polymerase chain reaction, which magnifies DNA so that viruses can be identified more precisely. With this procedure, Johnston discovered that 85% of asthma cases in children were caused by viruses, and half of these viruses were rhinoviruses. As a result, Johnston sought to develop a vaccine for the rhinovirus.

Teaming up with the pharmaceutical company Sanofi and Jeffrey Almond the head of vaccine development, Johnston began creating a vaccine. Since the vaccine needed to be effective for most or all serotypes rhinoviruses, Johnston and Almond searched for ways in which each different strain of rhinovirus will be incorporated into the vaccine. Incorporating each rhinovirus would be too costly and bulky. Thus, Johnston and Almond searched for the conserved pieces of rhinoviruses, structures or properties shared by all rhinoviruses. After isolating many different pieces of rhinoviruses, the researchers noted a particular recurring protein. This protein was mixed with an adjuvant, a stimulus that mimics the danger signals that trigger an immune response, and injected into mice. Tests on the mice proved that this vaccine was viable as the mice were protected against two different strains of rhinoviruses. With this encouraging piece of evidence, Johnston and Almond hoped to continue their research in rhinoviruses and further develop their vaccine. However, this vaccine was shelved once the company decided to take their resources to some other area.

Thus, there is no current vaccine for the common cold. The flu shot that many people receive every year is actually vaccines for influenza A and B. Therefore, this illness still affects adults 2-3 times a year. The attempts for developing a vaccine have been unsuccessful. As a result, the common cold is still persistent in society.



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