Acure for the common cold is in prospect after British scientists successfully tested a new drug molecule capable of killing multiple strains of the disease.
Until now it has been nearly impossible to vaccinate against cold virus because the condition is made of up a large family of different strains.
Remedies have instead focused on treating symptoms, such as runny nose and sore throat.
But the new approach by researchers at Imperial College London ignored the disease itself, instead targeting the human protein which is “hijacked” by all strains of the virus.
On Monday, leading experts hailed the results, which are published in the journal Nature Chemistry, as holding “great promise” for a practical cure.
The research team will next test the drug in animal trials before moving on to humans.
The common cold accounts for approximately 27 million lost days work a year and, on average, people in the UK spend the equivalent of two and a half years of their life suffering from it.
The compound, codenamed IMP-1088, targets N-myristoyltransferase (NMT), a protein in human cells which cold viruses used to construct a protein “shell”, also known as a capsid, which protects the virus genome.
Because the molecule targets the human protein and not simply a specific virus strand, it should work for all forms of the disease.
Due to the novel way it was created – combining two existing compounds – IMP-1088, is more than 100 times more potent than previous molecules targeting NMT.
The trials found it also succeeded in killing multiple strains, including viruses related to polio and foot and mouth disease.
Professor Ed Tate, who led the research, said: “The common cold is an inconvenience for most of us, but can cause serious complications in people with conditions like asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder).
“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.”
While there have been previous attempts to create drugs that target human cells rather than the viruses, the side-effects of many were toxic.
By contrast, the new molecule successfully blocked the several strains it was trialed against without damaging the human cells.
However, the safety of the drug will not be established for sure until it has undergone human trials.
Researchers envisage that, in its first formulation, the molecule would be manufactured into a throat spray drug which people would use as a “rescue” drug when symptoms are detected, similar to hay fever medication.
But if they can develop a medication with low toxicity, it may be possible to take it prophylactically in pill form during the Autumn and Winter.
It is likely such a drug would in the first instance be marketed at and trialed on sufferers of asthma and COPD, as this would be the most lucrative for pharmaceutical firms willing to invest in development.
Dr Peter Barlow, British Society for Immunology, said: “While this study was conducted entirely in vitro, i.e. using cells to model Rhinovirus (cold) infection in the laboratory, it shows great promise in terms of eventually developing a drug treatment to combat the effects of this virus in patients.”
The medicinal chemistry team in the Tate group at Imperial, led by Dr Andy Bell, who previously helped invent Viagra, were originally looking for compounds that targeted the protein in malaria parasites.