Last Sunday I said “Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime.” I’m actually still a bit ill, with the cold hanging on as a nasty wheezing cough.
I’m not the only one of course – it’s called the “common” cold for a reason. It is reported that people taking days off to get over their colds cost the US economy $40 billion a year, so why haven’t we found a cure yet?
Blame Darwin. Or rather, evolution. Viruses, such as the rhinovirus that causes colds, multiply incredibly quickly. With each new generation of the cold viruses, natural selection means that the most resilient (and thus hardest to cure) survive.
Matters are made worse by the diversity of the rhinovirus. There are more than 100 continuously evolving subspecies, each of which can give you a bunged up head and a few days off work. Compare that number to the polio virus, which has just three subspecies, and it’s easy to see why we haven’t eradicated the common cold in the same manner as polio.
Evolution may be to blame for the rhinovirus resilience, but our understanding of Darwin’s theory could help us conquer it eventually. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah, examined the rhinovirus genome in search of clues.
Using computer modelling, they were able to identify the sections of the genome that provide the virus with its resistance. In the evolutionary arms race, the rhinovirus has developed to evade detection by our immune systems. Keith Crandall, professor of biology at the university, was co-author of the study:
“The virus is evolving solutions against the immune system and drugs,” Crandall said. “The more we can learn about how the virus evolves solutions, the better we can rid the body of these infections.”
It’s not a cure, but it’s another stepping stone on the way. Without Darwin, work like this would be impossible as we would have no understanding of how viruses can adapt to our immune defences. By studying the rhinovirus genome, we can try to stay one step ahead of evolution and beat the cold for good. Hopefully by then I’ll have stopped coughing.