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Biomedicine in museums

A cure for the common cold?

By February 14, 2009No Comments

Over and over again I’ve praised Derek Lowe’s blog ‘In the Pipeline’ (see for example here). Derek delivers almost daily insights into the world of drug research, from chemical lab work routines to Big Pharma management and economics.

Yesterday’s post (‘A cure for the common cold …’) is a fine comment on the problematic quality of pharma communication on the mass media. I quote in extenso (hoping that Derek doesn’t sue me for infringing his copyright :-):

If you want a good example of the way that the popular media handle a drug discovery story, take a look at all the headlines this morning on the news of the sequencing of the common-cold rhinoviruses.

There are a couple of “Cure For the Common Cold Unlikely” ones, but most of the others seem to regard this as a big step forward. “Cure May Be Found”, “Getting Closer” , “May Lead to Cure”, “Could Help to Cure” – that’s the sort of thing. The problem is, how many viral diseases can we cure? I mean, really cure with drugs after a person’s been infected, wipe out and make go away? Right. Do I hear a zero? Viral diseases can be very difficult to get a handle on, because there aren’t many moving parts in there. If none of them are amenable to small-molecule drug approaches, people like me are pretty well out of the game.

The best chance you have with a viral infection is with a vaccine. But what this genomics work is telling us, actually, is that a vaccine is going to be rather hard to come by. This paper sequenced ninety-nine different rhinovirus strains, and if there are that many, there are surely that many more. Or there will be, after the next cold season – just wait. These things are mutating all the time – which is, of course, why we get colds year after year. The team working on this project was able to bin the viral genomes into fifteen different classes, but what are we going to do, develop fifteen different (and simultaneous) vaccines? Against a scurrying, hopping, moving target like this one?

No, this is very interesting work, and it’ll tell us a lot about how viruses do their nasty viral business out in the real world. But I wouldn’t start throwing around the “C” word. All that can do is disappoint people, I’m afraid.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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