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.
UpdateOK, so who's giving the wrong impression here? As per the comments to this post, here's one of the article's co-authors, Dr. Steve Liggett, as quoted in the New York Times:
"We are now quite certain that we see the Achilles' heel, and that a very effective treatment for the common cold is at hand," said Dr. Stephen Liggett, an asthma expert at the University of Maryland and co-author of the finding.
Say what? That's just a bizarre thing to say. But perhaps he was misquoted, because you can also find this, which seems to be a lot more grounded in reality:
There is hope that a careful study of the viral genomes will reveal one central point of attack that could be exploited by drug makers. "What we would like is a single Achilles' heel for all the viruses that we have found so far, and we could attack in that direction," Liggett said.
But the viruses are found to have impressive powers of change. The study shows that some human rhinoviruses result from the exchange of genetic material from two separate strains infecting the same person. Such recombination had not been thought possible for rhinoviruses.
That recombination is one reason why a vaccine against the common cold appears to be impossible, said Ann C. Palmenberg, director of the Institute for Molecular Virology at the University of Wisconsin, and lead author of the sequencing effort. The viruses just keep changing too much.