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Scientists are about to crack “enigma code” of the common cold virus

Posted February 28, 2017

There is a phenomenon called “enigma code of the common cold virus”. Human Parechovirus, a member of the Picornavirus family that includes the common cold, polio, and hand foot and mouth disease, is quite common, but scientists have struggled to understand its mechanisms. But now an international team of scientists think they are coming closer to cracking this code.

Vaccines may not work forever, since viruses are evolving. But scientists are about to start the development of universal anti-viral drugs, which could alleviate the problem of drug resistance. Image credit: Daniel Paquet via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Back in 2015 scientists at the Universities of Leeds and York, identified a set of encrypted signals in a plant virus, which is similar to Human Parechovirus. They discovered that the main mechanism in all the strains of the virus is virtually identical, which should mean that a single drug can be used to treat them all. One vaccine cannot address all the strains, which make prevention of infections complicated. In other words, before this discovery scientists thought that the signals regulating the assembly of a virus were unique to every strain and thus cannot be targeted with universal drugs.

The common cold virus infects more than two billion people, which is why this discovery is very important. Now scientists from the Universities of York, Leeds, and Helsinki built upon this research from 2015 to further improve their knowledge of these signals in the virus. They found that there is a ‘hidden’ code responsible for virus formation, which is shared across the virus family. Now scientists are trying to gather more empirical data about what this hidden code could be and they think they are nearing towards solving the mystery. The next step is going to be testing of various anti-viral drugs that target this decoding mechanism and partnerships with pharmacy industry for further trials.

It is not going to be easy, however. The mechanism is quite complex, which is why scientists struggled to understand it until now, and drug has to be very effective to disable it. Scientists compare it with pouring sand into gears of an expensive watch. Relying on vaccines only is not the best approach, because viruses evolve and may eventually attack us unprepared. That is why scientists are trying to develop these drugs. Professor Sarah Butcher, from the University of Helsinki, said: “This new research means that treatment would be less likely to trigger drug resistance, which is currently one of the major problems in anti-viral therapy. This discovery could be a great leap forward in curing a host of conditions.”

Drug resistance is a big problem, since it is taking away our tools to combat various viruses. Vaccines may not work as effectively too and thus many drugs will have to be developed to target all these diseases separately. Addressing them together, as scientists are attempting with this research, is a more effective solution.


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