UM scientists map genetic codes for cold virus

The Baltimore Sun

University of Maryland researchers have mapped the genetic codes for all known strains of the virus that causes the common cold, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Science. Understanding the genetic makeup of the virus could offer scientists clues on how to fight the common cold and possibly discover a cure, scientists said.

"There is real promise now, based on full understanding of this virus, that we have never had before," said Dr. Stephen B. Liggett, director of the cardiopulmonary genomics program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. "My goal is to get at the root cause. Let's get, perhaps, a single pill [that] will kill the virus that day, that moment, and within six hours you are cured. And it is possible."

Of course, such a discovery might take time, he said. Until now, fighting the cold was a mystery, because scientists knew little about the genetic makeup of the virus that causes it.

Three years ago, Liggett and researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison set out to determine why some strains of the cold virus are worse than others, why some cause asthmatics to have attacks and, ultimately, what is needed to create an effective drug that could treat even the harshest colds.

"All these questions could not be answered if we did not have the sequence for all recognized strains," Liggett said.

When the team began its research three years ago, members knew there were at least 99 strains of the virus, but only eight had been studied.

The researchers discovered the details of the strains of the virus, noting the similarities and differences, and mapped them in a family tree to show how they are connected. Understanding the distinctions is important in researching drugs or a vaccine to attack different kinds of colds. Different strains might require different drugs, Liggett said.

"It would not surprise us at all that this is not a situation that there is a 'one drug fits all,' " he said. "It may take five drugs. That's OK. Now, we have none."

The research is of particular interest for treating asthmatics, the young, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, all of whom can be debilitated by a common cold. The human rhinovirus is responsible for half of all asthma attacks and plays a role in bronchitis, middle ear infections and pneumonia.

Liggett said he plans to go to public health departments nationwide collecting samples from people with colds and study them to get a sense of how the virus can vary in different geographic locations.

Meanwhile, in the lab, researchers will study compounds that could work to attack the different strains of the virus. From there, Liggett said, researchers hope to form partnerships with drug companies to test their discoveries on people.

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