Friday, February 13, 2009

Cure for Common Cold A Little Closer

Despite all the ugly events of today, and the uglier ideas driving them, there are still heroic actions by individuals making real progress. It's worthwhile to pause from time to time to celebrate them.

One recent item is a breakthrough in the discovery of some underlying elements in the rhinovirus that produces the common cold. Dr. Ann Palmenberg and Dr. Claire Fraser-Liggett and their teams recently published a report in Science discussing the work. (From the International Herald Tribune:)
A further obstacle to drug development is that colds are mostly a minor nuisance. So people will not pay for expensive drugs, the Food and Drug Administrations seems unlikely to approve a drug with any serious downside for so mild a disease and pharmaceutical companies have had little interest in investing to find new treatments.

A research team headed by Liggett and Ann Palmenberg, a cold virologist at the University of Wisconsin, may have broken this chain of problems with new insights into the rhinovirus's evolutionary strategy. With the help of Claire Fraser-Liggett, a leading genome researcher at the University of Maryland, they have decoded the genomes of all 99 strains of rhinovirus, they report in the issue of Science published electronically on Thursday.

The virus has a genome of about 7,000 chemical units. These encode the information to make the 10 proteins that do everything the virus needs to infect cells and make more viruses. By comparing the 99 genomes with one another, the researchers were able to arrange them in a family tree based on similarities in their genomes.

From the family tree it is evident that some regions of the rhinovirus genome are changing all the time but others don't change at all. The fact that the unchanging regions are so conserved over the course of evolutionary time means that they perform vital roles and that the virus cannot let them change without perishing. They are therefore ideal targets for drugs since, in principle, any of the 99 strains would succumb to the same drug.
Billions will owe a debt of gratitude to these two heroes and that is one more debt I will happily take on. Let this be considered a small down payment.

No comments: