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  • You'd think there should be a cure for the common cold.

  • Scientists have been working on cold viruses for over 70 years,

  • but they've never found an effective cure.

  • The cold is the world's most prevalent infectious disease,

  • adults get between two and four colds a year and children get

  • way, way more.

  • So this means that you'll probably get over 200 colds in your lifetime.

  • And at any one point, hundreds of millions of people around the world

  • have a cold.

  • So we're going to talk about why it's so difficult to cure the cold

  • in a moment. But before that, we should go back to

  • the very first time we thought we were going to cure it.

  • The golden age of cold research starts in 1957,

  • with a scientist named Winston Price at Johns Hopkins University.

  • Price is the first person to ever isolate a cold virus in a laboratory,

  • and this is a really big deal because while people had described

  • the symptoms of a cold for thousands of years, nobody had ever found

  • the agent that causes it.

  • So Price becomes sort of like a minor scientific celebrity.

  • And he then announces that he's going to create a vaccine for it.

  • But, the vaccine doesn't work very well, it only protects against

  • a very, very small proportion of infections and Price has no idea why.

  • Now this is pretty disappointing, but it's good to think about

  • what's going on in science at the time.

  • People are incredibly, incredibly optimistic about the potential for

  • research and especially medical research.

  • The polio vaccine had just been created in 1955,

  • and it's the dawn of the age of antibiotics.

  • And after the Second World War, governments are really, really,

  • keen to invest in ambitious projects with definite goals

  • that solve big problems in society.

  • And so the cold becomes one of these things,

  • and a huge amount of funding comes down on the problem.

  • It moves beyond Price's lab and cold research centres open

  • across the entire world.

  • And my favourite one of these is the Common Cold Research Unit

  • in Salisbury, in England.

  • So the scientists there put ads in the local paper,

  • basically advertising a two week vacation in the countryside -

  • as long as you were willing to be locked in a drafty corridor or

  • to huff bags of cold infected air and let scientists observe you

  • for a couple hours every day.

  • And so what scientists unpick over the next 30 years from all of this,

  • is that the cold isn't caused by one virus, it's caused by seven different

  • viral families, and each one has subtypes which are called "serotypes"

  • which are recognised differently by the immune system.

  • And so, this is why the cold is so difficult to cure

  • and it's why Price's vaccine never worked, it was only for the one

  • cold family and one serotype he'd isolated.

  • The problem is, at the time that this is all known in the 1980s,

  • vaccine technology could only fit in a few serotypes per injection,

  • without causing an enormous immune response.

  • And so, you basically have the science that we know at an impasse

  • with the technology at the time.

  • And people have been working on colds for almost a generation,

  • 25 or 30 years, and the scientific imagination has a tendency to wander.

  • Elite virologists and government funding

  • start moving more into other projects,

  • like AIDS - which is incredibly deadly

  • and almost a total mystery at the time.

  • And so colds kind of go out of favour as a topic of research

  • and the common cold unit even shutters in 1990.

  • Since then, we've gotten way better at dealing with infectious diseases.

  • We've eradicated smallpox, gotten measles, mumps, rubella,

  • tetanus, whooping cough, all kinds of things under control.

  • And so cold research has undergone a bit of a renaissance lately.

  • There's two totally different approaches that are both

  • quite promising.

  • In the UK, there's a group that's taking a look at every single

  • cold serotype, and trying to find a piece in common that they can target

  • a vaccine to.

  • It's quite like an elegant, direct approach.

  • And then there's an American company who's trying to create

  • a super vaccine.

  • So this would be one shot, with all 50 of the most common cold

  • serotypes in it. It's sort of a brute force approach.

  • But, despite the promise of all this research, there's still one big

  • hurdle to getting it finished and that has more to do with the

  • business of science than science itself.

  • The thing is,

  • vaccines aren't very good bets for pharmaceutical companies.

  • They're incredibly expensive to develop

  • and failure rates are really high, even late in trials.

  • It takes about $1 billion American dollars and almost a decade

  • to develop a successful vaccine.

  • Of all the thousands of pharmaceutical companies that

  • there are, only about five work on vaccines really seriously

  • and these are the biggest and richest companies.

  • And when it comes down to it, would you really get an expensive injection

  • just to avoid a few days discomfort? I probably wouldn't.

  • So, even after all the progress over the past 70 years

  • we'll probably continue to suffer from colds.

  • Thanks for watching. Don't forget to subscribe

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  • See you again soon!

You'd think there should be a cure for the common cold.

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The real reason there's no cure for your cold | BBC Ideas

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    Summer posted on 2020/04/23
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