Jerome Taylor: An illness that has defied medical science

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The Independent Online

Although mankind's battle against the common cold can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphics of the nose have been found next to symbols for coryza (catarrh), it is only in the last 50 years that scientists began fully to understand what causes a cold and why it is that only humans and chimpanzees suffer from them.

Britain has led much of the most pioneering research to find a cure, through its Common Cold Unit which was set up in 1943.

European governments first began to realise just how devastating the illness could be in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Although flu is caused by different viruses to the common cold, the appalling loss of life in the 1918 flu epidemic placed viral respiratory infections at the top of the agenda for the newly formed Medical Research Council since many of the millions who died in the epidemic did so from cold-related illnesses such as pneumonia.

Chimpanzees were too expensive to import en masse, so during the first half of the 20th century British scientists began looking into how the common cold worked by conducting experiments on medical students at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London.

In 1940, the American government, through Harvard University, donated a pre-fabricated isolation hospital which was shipped across the Atlantic and used for the study of infectious diseases. After America's entry into the European theatre of the Second World War, the Harvard Hospital, at Harnham Hill near Salisbury in Wiltshire, became a field hospital but reverted to its original role following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.

The hospital became the Common Cold Unit and for the next 50 years, under the leadership of Christopher Andrewes and David Tyrrell – who went on to write a book about his experiences battling the cold – scientists from around the world began to unravel the mystery of the rhinoviruses that cause so much misery.

They placed advertisements in local newspapers asking for volunteers to spend time being infected with the common cold and then studied. Remarkably, more than 20,000 people volunteered for the tests which in the early days simply involved having another person's mucus inserted into their nasal cavity.

Understanding of the potential cause of colds paralleled the development of the germ theory and the discovery of viruses as causes of other illnesses. Over time, more and more complex experiments began to unravel the mysteries of the cold, including the discovery of rhinoviruses themselves. Scientists have also found that stress often plays a part in the onset of a cold and the debate continues as to whether vitamin C can help stave off winter sniffles.

But the holy grail of a cure was never found and the Common Cold Unit was wound down at the end of the Eighties.

The ability to transmit rhinoviruses to an animal other than a human or a chimp may bring the scientific community one step closer to eradicating the common cold.