Unlocking 'enigma code' could lead to a drug for the common cold

Caused by a number of virus strains, the common cold has long eluded efforts to find a cure. An international team of scientists has now come a step closer to unlocking what has become known as the “enigma code” of a virus that causes it.

The code, a group of encrypted signals, is hidden in the genome of human Parechovirus, part of a family of viruses that causes polio and hand, foot and mouth disease in addition to the common cold. The code plays a role in the virus’ self-replication.

The scientists, from the Universities of York, Leeds and Helsinki, found that the mechanism that decodes the signals is the same for every strain of the virus, representing a single target for antiviral drugs to treat the common cold. And the fact that the mechanism is preserved across strains shows it is “robust” against mutations, according to the statement.

The mechanism also depends on several sites spread across the genome. “Previously scientists have assumed that the signals regulating the assembly of a virus were located in a unique area of the genome,” said Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York. "Using a combination of biological insight and mathematical modelling, our study suggests that, by contrast, the mechanism relies on multiple dispersed sites in the genome that act together in a cooperative way to enable efficient virus formation.”

Now, the team plans to test antiviral drugs that target the decoding mechanism, and, with funding support and pharma partnerships, hopes to see a drug being developed over the next decade.

And while the research could lead to a treatment for the elusive common cold, it could also result in nonvaccine alternatives for polio.

"We need to move away from a vaccine approach, which is what we have for flu and polio,” said Peter Stockley of the University of Leeds. “Vaccines, although our best source of defense against polio at the moment, can result in the release of more virulent strains of the disease. Protecting against infection therefore relies on continued worldwide vaccination, which is both very expensive and logistically difficult."