Researchers uncover new approach to fighting viruses
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Tuesday, November 2, 2010 6:24PM EDT
The conventional wisdom that there's no cure for the common cold may one day be untrue, as researchers are claiming a major breakthrough in understanding how viruses and the body interact.
Until now, it's been generally accepted that while you can try to safeguard yourself from catching a cold, once the infection takes hold, there's little you can do but suffer through the illness.
According to findings published in the online issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), a team of researchers at the famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, believes that may not be entirely true.
They've discovered that the body's natural antibodies -- adaptable proteins that can discover and eliminate invading viruses -- can actually attach themselves to a virus and hitch a ride right into a cell.
Typically, when a virus infects a cell, it hijacks the molecular machinery to make copies of itself. But when the virus enters a cell with an antibody attached, a protein called TRIM21 shunts the invader into the cell's disposal system instead.
In that way, TRIM21 can effectively eliminate the virus long before it has a chance to develop into a full-blown infection.
Increasing the amount of TRIM21 in the body increases the body's ability to stave off infection, the study found, pointing to a possible cure for the common cold and a host of infections that plague so many people each year.
Scientists had believed antibodies worked only by fighting infections outside cells, or by blocking their entry into cells altogether. That meant treatments for viral infections often aimed to kill the entire cell. But their discovery that antibodies can actually work inside cells turns that whole belief system on its head.
Considering that, to date, doctors have only been able to treat the symptoms of a viral infection, the prospect of an entirely new approach to finding a cure is tantalizing.
"It's very hopeful for creating new vaccines, or for treating infections," said Prof. Earl Brown, a virologist at the University of Ottawa.
While Brown said the new insight won't change how viruses are treated today, it will broaden researchers' thinking immediately on how to treat infections. "And over a period of decades, this will filter out to the clinic, where it will be applied," he said.
It could be up to 10 years before lead researcher Dr. Leo James and his team are able to turn their discovery into a marketable treatment.
With files from CTV medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip