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It's So Common

September 15, 1985

There may be a fortunate few in the world who by reason of isolation or plain good luck manage to avoid the miseries of the common cold, but just about everyone else can gloomily anticipate periodic run-ins with this most prevalent of communicable diseases from infancy onward. Health statisticians figure that the average American gets about six colds a year. That results in a huge amount of personal discomfort, and also accounts for billions of dollars annually in lost economic activity. Yes, we can put men on the moon but we can't cure the common cold. Ah, but substitute the word prevent for cure , and maybe, just maybe, relief is in sight.

At least that's the possibility arising from some elegant work done by a team of Purdue University researchers led by Michael G. Rossmann, a professor of biological sciences. For the first time, the Purdue team has been able to produce a three-dimensional map of the atomic structure of human rhinovirus-14, one of the 100 or so known infectious agents that cause colds. It did so by bombarding a virus in crystalline form with intense X-rays made in a particle accelerator at Cornell University, and then running the X-ray images that were produced through a super-computer. The computer's analysis of more than 6 million bits of information provided the scientists with their most detailed map of a cold virus.

Knowing now better than ever before how a virus is put together is a major step toward understanding just how that virus is able to infect body cells, and how the body's own immune system responds to the attack. Does this mean that a vaccine is on the horizon that could foil the cold virus? Probably not, because it's unlikely that a single vaccine could combat the many strains of virus that bring on colds. But it may be possible, Rossmann suggests, to develop a vaccine that would modify the body's own "receptors"--the cells in the upper-respiratory system that parts of the invading virus attach themselves to. If the rhinovirus is denied a place to land, its ability to do mischief can be thwarted.

Fast, fast, fast relief still remains some time away, so for now cold sufferers must go on doctoring themselves with whatever home-devised or store-bought symptomatic treatments they have found useful. None of these, unhappily, prevent cold viruses from being spread. And so one person's upper-respiratory infection today can pretty much be counted on to become another person's infection a few days hence. That's why the cold is defined as common: It belongs equally to, or is shared by, everyone or all. In this case we would prefer a little less equality.

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