The sequences, which are required to assemble the virus, appear to be identical in all strains and are dispersed across the genome, raising the possibility of a new drug target to treat all strains of a virus.
'Previously scientists have assumed that the signals regulating the assembly of a virus were located in a unique area of the genome,' said Professor Reidun Twarock, a mathematical biologist at the University of York, and co-author of the study. 'Using a combination of biological insight and mathematical modelling, our study suggests that, by contrast, the mechanism relies on multiple dispersed sites in the genome that act together in a cooperative way to enable efficient virus formation.'
The regions were identified in the human parechovirus, a member of the picornavirus family, which includes the viruses responsible for the common cold and polio. Scientists at the Universities of Leeds and York had previously identified these regions in a similar plant virus.
Standard vaccines are designed to treat single strains of a virus, but a drug targeting these regions could be effective against all strains.
'The coding works like the cogwheels in a Swiss watch,' said Professor Peter Stockley from the University of Leeds, a co-author of the study. 'We now need a drug that has the same effect as pouring sand into the watch; every part of the viral mechanism could be disabled.'
The team now plan to screen potential antiviral drugs targeting these regions. Professor Sarah Butcher of the University of Helsinki, and co-author of the study, said: 'This new research means that treatment would be less likely to trigger drug resistance, which is currently one of the major problems in antiviral therapy. This discovery could be a great leap forward in curing a host of conditions.'
Professor Peter Openshaw of Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study, said it was 'a novel avenue to be explored, but a long way from finding cures for the common cold'. He cautioned that it was not yet known if the results were applicable to all related viruses, nor if antivirals would be effective in short-term infections like those caused by common cold viruses.
The study was published in Nature Communications.