Attacking the common cold by unshielding its genome

The problem with the common cold is that it isn’t just one virus. It’s a family of viruses that evolve so quickly no one can ever be fully immune to the cold, and developing a vaccine that can tackle all of the variations of the virus is impossible. But what if there were one way to block the ability of all cold viruses from replicating—thereby fending off the sneezing, sore throat and general misery that they cause?

Researchers at Imperial College London believe they’ve found a molecule that can block multiple strains of the cold by targeting a protein the virus needs to survive. They reported the discovery in the journal Nature Chemistry.

The molecule the researchers created, IMP-1088, homes in on a protein in cells called N-myristoyltransferase (NMT). When viruses invade the body, they use NMT to construct a shell that protects their genomes, which in turn allows them to make copies of themselves. Inhibiting NMT with IMP-1088 prevented multiple strains of the cold virus from “hijacking” human cells in lab tests, the researchers reported.

The Imperial College team came up with the idea for IMP-1088 when they were looking for a way to target NMT in malaria parasites. They found two compounds that seemed to work well together, so they combined them to make IMP-1088. The team was led by Andy Bell, who’s best known for creating Viagra while working in the research group at Pfizer.

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Much of the effort to cure the common cold is centered around targeting the genomes of the viruses that cause it. Last year, a group of European scientists announced they had found a way to decode encrypted signals in the genome of human Parechovirus, which is part of the family of viruses that cause the common cold. The signals govern the assembly of the virus. With their newfound insight, they are working on identifying antiviral drugs that disrupt those signals.

The Imperial College researchers reported that IMP-1088 blocked the common cold without affecting healthy cells. They are now planning to move IMP-1088 into animal trials to ensure that it is safe and that it doesn’t target other conditions with different causes, according to the statement. They are also developing a way to deliver the drug via the lungs.

"The common cold is an inconvenience for most of us, but can cause serious complications in people with conditions like asthma and COPD,” said lead researcher Ed Tate, a professor of chemistry at Imperial College, in the statement. “A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection, and we are working on making a version that could be inhaled, so that it gets to the lungs quickly.”