In a dramatic breakthrough that could affect millions of lives, scientists have been able to show for the first time that the body’s immune defences can destroy the common cold virus after it has actually invaded the inner sanctum of a human cell, a feat that was believed until now to be impossible.
The discovery opens the door to the development of a new class of antiviral drugs that work by enhancing this natural virus-killing machinery of the cell. Scientists believe the first clinical trials of new drugs based on the findings could begin within two to five years.
The researchers said that many other viruses responsible for a range of diseases could also be targeted by the new approach. They include the norovirus, which causes winter vomiting, and rotavirus, which results in severe diarrhoea and kills thousands of children in developing countries.
Viruses are still mankind’s biggest killers, responsible for twice as many deaths as cancer, essentially because they can get inside cells where they can hide away from the body’s immune defences and the powerful antibiotic drugs that have proved invaluable against bacterial infections.
However, a study by a team of researchers from the world-famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge has shown that this textbook explanation of the limits of the human immune system is wrong because anti-viral antibodies can in fact enter the cell with the invading virus where they are able to trigger the rapid destruction of the foreign invader.