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Good Question: Why Can't We Cure The Cold?

By Jason DeRusha, WCCO-TV

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- It has the runny nose, the persistent cough and the watery eyes. The only common thing about the common cold is what a common pain in the -- everything -- it is. But with a billion instances of the cold in the U.S. every year, why haven't scientists found a cure?

First, there is no one cold.

"There are hundreds of them," said Dr. Pat Schlivert, an infectious disease researcher at University of Minnesota School of Medicine.

Most of what we call "the cold" is caused by rhinovirus and there are more than 150 different strains.

"It mutates very rapidly. Even during the course of infection, that virus is changing. Your immune system when you recover, you may not be immune from it," said Schlivert.

While the cold doesn't kill, it does cause us to call in sick to work when we're sick, or when we have to stay home for our kids. The University of Michigan estimates the cold costs the United States $40 billion a year.

If researchers could figure out how to keep the virus from attaching to our cells, they could design a drug to block it and we'd never get sick. German drug company Boehringer-Ingelheim came up with a molecule, called BIRR 4, that they deployed in a nasal spray, which did just that.

However, the science was difficult to develop, and the business concern over the cost to make it happen put the brakes on development.

Plus, even if you stop the virus, you have to also stop the immediate inflammatory response that causes the runny nose and itchy eyes.

"You could spend billions of dollars trying to figure this out and you may never get there," said Schlivert.

This drug would have to be pretty powerful. You'd probably need a prescription, which could potentially send hundreds of millions of people flooding their doctor's office. It would overwhelm the medical system.

"I won't say they'll never figure it out. But it's gonna be a long, long time," said Schlivert.

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