For most people, the common cold is nothing worse than an unpleasant way to spend a few days. But for 13 million patients with chronic upper-respiratory-tract weaknesses, 10 million asthmatics, and the 20 million children who suffer recurring inner-ear infections, colds can be painful, debilitating, and sometimes even life-threatening.
That's why biotech companies, even as they pursue drugs to fight cancer, AIDS, and other more obvious killers, have always had an eye on cold viruses. On Mar. 11, scientists from Agouron Pharmaceuticals Inc. in La Jolla, Calif., reported what could be an important breakthrough in homing in on drugs to disable "rhinovirus 3C protease." That's an enzyme that all cold viruses need in order to replicate. Using X-rays and computers, the scientists have drawn a three-dimensional picture of the surface of the enzyme, particularly a critical region called the "active site." In the next two years, Agouron's goal is to design a drug that can fit precisely into that site and potentially block the virus' ability to replicate.