We can land a man on the moon, goes the saying, but we can't cure the common cold.
That may, at last, be changing. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Maryland and the Craig Venter Institute have decoded the genetic material of all the known versions of the cold virus, known as rhinoviruses.
Armed with that, they say, they can tell how the viruses work -- and, potentially, how they could be stopped with genetically engineered medicines in the future.
"Maybe we'll have four or five drugs available to beat the common cold," said Dr. Stephen Liggett of the University of Maryland, the senior author of the study, appearing in Friday's edition of the journal Science. "Once a patient's specific rhinovirus is known, we could actually pick the right drug for the right patient."
The "common cold" has been so difficult to beat partly because "common" is a misnomer. There are 106 known versions of rhinovirus (the word, derived from Greek, simply means virus of the nose). They are constantly mutating. Many of them have little in common -- except that they cause aches and pains, fever and runny nose.
For the elderly, the very young and those with asthma or weakened immune systems, complications of a cold can be dangerous.
"When you have something as common as this," said Dr. Martin Blaser, chief of the Department of Medicine at New York University, "when you have tens of millions of people becoming infected every year, those numbers add up."
The result of the researchers' work is a family tree of sorts of the different viruses. It turned out they fit into about 15 different families. Members of each group have much in common and may respond the same way to future medicines.
Doctors have been frustrated because today's remedies only treat the symptoms of a cold. A decongestant will dry one's sinuses; pain medications will ease the body aches one gets.
But for now, people have no choice but to let the virus itself run its course.
That means, naturally, millions of people blowing their noses, sipping tea, and missing work or school.
"We calculated somewhere between $60 and $100 billion per year were spent on the common cold," said Liggett.
He said he hopes large pharmaceutical companies -- or small but nimble biotech startup firms -- will try to capitalize on the research and develop commercially viable medications.
The process could take years -- and would be expensive -- but the potential market is huge.
"We were working without all the information before now," said Liggett. "If you think of it as a puzzle, we had only a few pieces of the puzzle."