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October 10, 2019

New discovery puts researchers closer to curing the common cold

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    Researchers have found a protein that can help prevent certain viruses from spreading through the body, putting scientists a step closer to finding a cure for the common cold, according to a study published last month in Nature Microbiology.

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    Protein may be the key to stopping the common cold

    For the study, researchers at Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco investigated how to prevent enteroviruses, which cause the common cold, from spreading between cells.

    The researchers used the gene editing tool CRISPR to individually cut away eliminate genes for potential "host proteins," which may help the viruses spread, until they'd deleted every gene and its corresponding protein. Next, the researchers exposed the cells to two enteroviruses.

    The researchers discovered cells that were missing the protein SETD3 were consistently able to stop the enteroviruses from spreading.

    The researchers turned off the gene for SETD3 in human lung cells and in live mice and found that the absence of the gene stopped the virus in its tracks.  

    "Traditional anti-viral drugs target the virus itself. But the virus is very smart and it can mutate its way around it," Jan Carette, an associate professor at Stanford and an author of the study, said of the latest findings. "What we do is make the host inhospitable for these viruses. So it's much more difficult for these viruses to mutate around."

    Are we actually close to a cure?

    For decades, researchers thought a vaccine for the common cold was impossible, but now several teams around the world say they've made surprising progress toward developing one. For instance, researchers at Imperial College London last year found that targeting the N-myristoyltransferase (NMT) protein may also prevent the viruses from replicating.

    In light of the latest findings in the Nature study, Carette said the next step would be to develop a drug that temporarily disables the SETD3 protein and send the drug through human trials and safety testing. However, that could take as long as five years, according to Carette.

    Meanwhile, Vincent Racaniello, a microbiologist for Columbia University, said while the recent study is an "important step" toward finding a cure,  there's still "a long way to go" before a cure is possible.  "We're talking many years of work," he said. "Just because you can take it out in mice doesn't mean you could take it out in people" (Sterling, ABC7 News, 9/17; Shepherd, "Morning Mix," Washington Post, 9/19).

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