Scientists May Have Just Unlocked a Major Secret to Treating Viruses


The common cold has been hacked. 

This week, researchers in the United Kingdom discovered exactly how the virus behind the incurable runny nose makes its move against the human immune system, information that can be used to design drugs that help our bodies fight back. As the Washington Post rightly points out, this is just like when the British codebreakers decrypted Nazi Germany's Enigma machine in World War II. Scientists may have unlocked a major secret key to fighting viruses.

The clue was hidden in specific genetic instructions that essentially tell the virus how to create a clone of itself, the team reported Wednesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Not only did the researchers uncover the "secret" genetic coding, but they also revealed that the virus goes to extra measures to keep the genes hidden, keeping the code with a folded strand of RNA.

Well, the secret's out.

"The new insights reveal a completely novel set of drug targets for these pathogens," Peter Stockley, the University of Leeds professor who led the study, told Mic. He explained that the ideal way to treat a virus is by creating a vaccine, but because there can be a number of different strains of the same virus, this is often impractical.  

Peter G. Stockley

How it works: The common cold is pretty harmless, but the virus that causes it is basically a molecular pirate. It latches onto cells in the body, offloads its genetic contents and commandeers the cell's machinery to make new copies of its genes. The virus sends a clear message to the cells it attacks: "I'm the captain now." When the viruses take over too many human cells in the upper respiratory tract (everything from your nose to throat) it causes congestion, coughing and a scratchy throat.

To hack into the virus's genes, Stockley had to enlist help.

"Two big developments were needed," he said. "Firstly, we needed to be able to see the coded signals." Stockley explained that, with the help of York University mathematician Reidun Twarock, the team was able to see just how and where the virus was hiding the "genetic messages." Once they found them, they "had to develop experimental methods to see the effects of those messages."

"We have shown that for some of these viruses there is a secondary, until now secret, code that is in effect the instruction manual for the proteins to build a protective shell around the same RNA," Stockley said.

So what does this mean for me? The research is promising for more than just getting rid of the sniffles. It's a step toward understanding how pathogens evade our immune systems. Viruses, like many other microorganisms, evolve quickly, making it difficult and expensive to design drugs that keep them at bay. By targeting specific genes, however, scientists can create drugs that intercept or even destroy the harmful genetic instructions they carry.

So far, the researchers have only looked at the plant version of the cold virus, but because the human version appears to have a similar gene-hiding-protocol, they will likely be able to apply what they've learned to it.

"That will be next, but as someone with a heavy cold at the moment, human rhinovirus (the ones that cause the cold) is also on our list," Stockley said.

h/t Washington Post

Corrected Feb. 12, 2015:

This article has been updated to properly credit the Washington Post for linking the discovery of the common cold virus to the Enigma Code.