Researchers have claimed a breakthrough in finding a cure for the common cold.
They said they were closer to cracking the “Enigma code” of the virus – paving the way for a single drug to treat colds within a decade.
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.”
The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust and published in the journal Nature Communications, looked at the workings of a “hidden code” within the genome of human parechovirus.
That’s a member of the family that includes the common cold, polio and hand, foot and mouth disease.
The team, which included experts from York, Leeds and Helsinki universities, found that details of the decoding mechanism appear identical in all strains of the virus.
That may allow a single drug to treat them all.
This is not the case with vaccines such as the different flu vaccines. They are only effective with certain strains of the virus.
Professor Peter Stockley, from 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.
“We need to move away from a vaccine approach, which is what we have for flu and polio.
“Vaccines, although our best source of defence 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.”
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.”
Experts not involved in the study said it was a “well worked through piece of science” but emphasised it had no immediate impact on treating patients with colds.
Dr John Tregoning of Imperial College London said: “This insight might lead to new anti-viral drugs which could disrupt how the virus replicates. However, viruses in different families are extremely different.
“In terms of burden of disease, the virus being studied here (parechovirus), is actually low on the list of viruses that cause respiratory disease (colds).”
Professor Peter Openshaw, president of the British Society for Immunology, said: “It’s certainly a novel avenue to be explored, but a long way from finding cures for the common cold.
“This is excellent science, but far from any practical application in the immediate future. It’s a great start, but it’s a long way from ‘cracking the Enigma code’ of the common cold.”