Scientists discover viral ‘Enigma machine’: Cure for the common cold in sight?

A team of British researchers appear to have made a breakthrough in the treatment of a wide range of diseases. By finding a ‘hidden code’ inside the RNA of single-stranded viruses the researchers may have found a way to defeat the common cold and a number of other illnesses. The discovery could do better than providing a cure, it could keep the viruses from ever taking hold in the first place.

The code had gone unnoticed until now, though the research team claims that it was hidden in plain sight in the ribonucleic acid (RNA). In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Early Edition, scientists from the University of Leeds and the University of York describe the meaning of the code. More importantly the researchers demonstrate the jamming code that will prevent the virus from assembling properly, stopping it from functioning properly and preventing disease.

“If you think of this as molecular warfare, these are the encrypted signals that allow a virus to deploy itself effectively. Now, for this whole class of viruses, we have found the ‘Enigma machine’–the coding system that was hiding these signals from us. We have shown that not only can we read these messages but we can jam them and stop the virus’ deployment,” said Peter Stockley in a statement.

Shockley is a professor of Biological Chemistry in the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Biological Sciences and the leader of the study.

Single stranded viruses are among the most potent and damaging of infections pathogens. They were also, based on their relatively simple structure, likely one of the first to evolve. Rhinovirus, which causes the common cold, is just one example of a single stranded virus. Other examples include mosquito borne chikungunya, tick-borne encephalitis, hepatitis C, HIV and norovirus.

“We have understood for decades that the RNA carries the genetic messages that create viral proteins, but we didn’t know that, hidden within the stream of letters we use to denote the genetic information, is a second code governing virus assembly. It is like finding a secret message within an ordinary news report and then being able to crack the whole coding system behind it.This paper goes further: it also demonstrates that we could design molecules to interfere with the code, making it uninterpretable and effectively stopping the virus in its tracks,“ said Dr Roman Tuma, Reader in Biophysics at the University of Leeds.

The discovery of the code unfolded in stages over several years. It was ultimately cracked using mathematical algorithms to crack the code which governs the way a single strand virus packs itself into its outer shell, and then using single-molecule fluorescence spectroscopy to watch the process in a sample single-stranded plant virus.

“The Enigma machine metaphor is apt. The first observations pointed to the existence of some sort of a coding system, so we set about deciphering the cryptic patterns underpinning it using novel, purpose designed computational approaches. We found multiple dispersed patterns working together in an incredibly intricate mechanism and we were eventually able to unpick those messages. We have now proved that those computer models work in real viral messages,” said Professor Reidun Twarock, of the University of York’s Department of Mathematics.

The next step for the researchers is to observe the process in animal viruses and continue on the way to destabilizing viruses before they can begin to have an effect.

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