Viruses can be tricky foes, but researchers in Europe have uncovered a new weakness that could be exploited to produce new antiviral drugs. The team discovered a compound that can prevent certain classes of viruses from infecting cells, paving the way for new treatments against diseases like the common cold, meningitis, or polio.

The team, made of up researchers from the University of Leuven, University of Helsinki and the Birla Institute of Technology, focused on a broad class of the bugs known as picornaviruses. This group contains rhinoviruses – those responsible for colds – and enteroviruses, which are behind infections like meningitis, encephalitis, and polio.

Since there currently aren't any antivirals for picornaviruses, the team on the new study set out to find some. They tested a range of compounds and studied their effects on viruses using cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). In doing so, they found a promising compound then worked backwards to create several variations of the active antiviral molecule, which are effective inhibitors of rhino- and enteroviruses.

"These results open up a new avenue for the design of broad-spectrum antivirals against rhinoviruses and enteroviruses, both of which are major human pathogens," says Johan Neyts, co-lead author of the study.

The team also detailed how the new drugs actually work. The compound lodges itself into a previously unknown "pocket" on the surface of the virus, which "stabilizes" the virus. That means it can no longer change shape to enter cells, which is a key part of the process of causing infection.

Unfortunately there is a chance that the viruses could eventually evolve resistances to this new class of drugs, like they have with older ones. But the researchers say that this particular pocket they're targeting seems to be a crucial part of replication, meaning viruses are less likely to mutate that, at risk of making themselves less viable in other ways.

Either way, the development is promising, and the team plans to continue creating new drugs out of these compounds to fight a range of picornaviruses.

The research was published in the journal PLOS Biology.

Source: PLOS via Science Daily