Could the low-grade misery of a runny nose, sore throat and heavy head that signal the common cold be snuffed out?

The University of Calgary is one of only two places in North America that are approved to infect people with cold viruses to study how their immune systems respond. The goal is to make respiratory infections such as the cold less dangerous to people with asthma and other lung diseases.

The lead researcher says a happy outcome would be making colds symptom-free for everyone. 

"My argument would be if you have close to a symptom-free cold, that's about as good a cure as we’re ever going to get," said David Proud, a professor of physiology and pharmacology at the University of Calgary. 

"We don't want to stop you from making immunity to that virus, it will protect you the next time. But we don't want you to have the worst of the symptoms."

Proud's interest in the 200-plus viruses that cause the common cold isn't just in run-of-the-mill colds.

Rather, Proud is concerned about how colds can trigger attacks of lower-airway diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, bronchitis and emphysema, which can be life-threatening.

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The common cold costs billions of dollars to society in lost days of work and school. (iStock)

In Canada, exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder or COPD is the most common reason for hospitalization of adults, with an average stay of two weeks, he noted. 

At Proud's laboratory, researchers are looking for substances the body makes when it tries to fight off the sniffles.

"What we've been working on is trying to understand which of those anti-viral molecules are most important," said Proud.

P.O.V.

What's your cure for the common cold? Share your favourite remedy.

If "we can find a way to boost how you produce them or maybe supplement them with some sort of spray system, that would allow you to have a better immune response."

In January, Proud and his team will start infecting people with cold virus as part of an experiment.

Last month, Proud used a dropper and then a spray to deliver droplets of a cold virus into the nose of volunteer Jonathan Pelikan.

In the name of science, Pelikan agreed to be infected with a cold and allowed CBC to follow his progress. After 48 hours, he developed cold symptoms.

"I definitely have the sniffles," Pelikan said, wiping his nose.

Herbal remedies for cold

Pelikan turned to his mom's prescription of chicken soup, rest and fluids to fight his congestion and sore throat.

Studies suggest that herbal remedies such as echinacea and zinc have only a modest effect on colds, said Dr. Shelly McNeil, an infectious disease specialist at Dalhousie University in Halifax. 

Cold viruses

The most common cold viruses are rhinoviruses. Rhinovirus comes from the Greek word for nose.

There are more than 150 rhinoviruses that probably account for half or more of colds that people experience.

Coronavirus and adenoviruses also cause cold symptoms.

The sheer number of viruses is one reason why a vaccine for colds has never been practical.

Source: Prof. David Proud

"They all have some evidence in the lab and even some in people that they do modulate the way the immune system responds to viruses," said McNeil, who is studying the effectiveness of the cold remedy Cold-Fx for children.

"The problem with them is, they're not regulated as tightly as drugs, so it's hard to know what you're getting."

Over-the-counter products treat individual symptoms such as a runny nose, which Proud calls a piecemeal approach instead of a cure.

Most current herbal products, if they show any benefit, reduce cold duration by two or three days at the most, McNeil said.

Proud and his team plan to study Pelikan and other volunteers to check if the changes they see in test tube models actually occur in patients. If so, that will give them clues to render colds symptom-free.

This week CBC News reports on the search for cures for aging, Type 1 diabetes, the common cold, obesity and cancer on CBC Radio One, CBC News Network, The National and at cbc.ca/news/health/. 

With files from CBC's Pauline Dakin