Scientists crack the cold's 'enigma code'

Scientists crack the cold's 'enigma code'
23 Feb

A scientific breakthrough has provided hope of a cure for the common cold.

After discovering the hidden code of how the cold virus may be packaged, experts say a treatment could be available in a decade.

Currently there is no cure for the misery of the common cold, which can last up to a fortnight, with cough medicines and throat sweets only easing the symptoms.

But scientists now know how to disrupt the genetic signals scattered throughout a related virus.

This virus, called parechovirus, is within the same family as those which cause colds so may also have identified their 'Achilles heel'.

It could lead to a preventative drug to stop people catching a cold, or to make it last a shorter time if they do.

Professor Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York, said: 'The common cold infects more than two billion people annually, making it one of the most successful viral pathogens, so we are excited to make this crucial step forward.'

There are three types of cold virus, and about 200 strains, which may explain why so many people catch a cold during the winter months.

The search for a cure has already lasted decades, with £415 million cough, cold and sore throat remedies sold every year in Britain.

Scientists had previously tried to detect any signal which might help to assemble parechovirus by recoding one part of its genetic material, but found none.

However researchers at the universities of York, Leeds and Helsinki have now found there are many signals are dispersed throughout the virus rather than in one place.

Having unlocked the 'enigma code' of how the parechovirus, which causes flu and polio, is packaged, the team believe they can disrupt how it replicates.

The research could provide an important stepping stone, as a similar mechanism could apply to common cold viruses.

Professor Peter Stockley, from the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology at the University of Leeds, said: 'The coding works like the cogwheels in a Swiss watch.

'We now need a drug that has the same effect as pouring sand into the watch - every part of the viral mechanism could be disabled.'

Professor Twarock added: 'This is an exciting discovery because it gives us the opportunity to work with partners in identifying a drug treatment that a patient can take either to prevent catching a cold from those around them, or a drug that can treat the symptoms of a cold after a patient has caught the virus, resulting in the cold being less virulent and lasting only for a short period.'

This would represent a major step forward from the current advice to wash hands and sneeze into a tissue to prevent colds spreading.

However experts have cautioned that there is still no realistic short-term prospect of a treatment. Cold viruses have 'outwitted' the best attempts to find treatments over three decades.

In response to the study, published in the journal Nature Communications, Jonathan Ball, Professor of Molecular Virology at the University of Nottingham, said: 'The authors hope that this structural conservation will prove to be an Achilles heel – one that new drugs might target in order to bring about a broad acting antiviral.

'This is indeed feasible, but of course, these viruses are adept at mutating – they are the archetypal shape-changers.'


Fortifying food with vitamin D would save more than 3million people a year from suffering with chronic colds and flu, a landmark study suggested last week.

It claimed that consuming the vitamin at least once a week slashes the risk of some people falling ill with a respiratory infection by up to 50 per cent.

The study, led by British scientists, suggests that if everyone in the UK took vitamin D pills, or ate vitamin-fortified food, it could cut the number of people infected with flu or colds by at least five percentage points.

This would mean 3.25million people every year would avoid the illnesses.

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