A game-changer in fight against common colds - Professor Peter Barlow, Dr Craig Stevens and Robert Goodfellow

The common cold is an elusive, yet ever present, part of our daily lives. For many people, working at home, increased hygiene measures and social distancing has not only helped to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 but also reduced the incidence of other infections, such as cold and flu.

As we begin to move beyond our socially distanced existence into a more interactive world, we will once again be challenged by some of the viral infections that have perhaps taken a back seat over the past 16 months.

However, the positive news is that Edinburgh Napier University researchers are aiming to address this by developing a targeted supplement pill that is designed to enhance the body’s natural antiviral responses against one of the main causes of the common cold. In terms of harnessing the extraordinary power of the immune system, this could very well be a game-changer.

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The common cold is a term that is frequently used to describe quite a wide variety of viral infections that cause relatively similar symptoms, such as sneezing, coughing, runny noses or sore throats. One of the most common causes of the common cold is rhinovirus, which is normally responsible for almost 50 per cent of common colds experienced in the UK.

Under ‘normal’ circumstances, adults can expect to experience a cold around two to four times a year, but children can experience infections more frequently, around eight to 12 times a year. As the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, we will again be challenged by circulating viruses, typically responsible for 26.1 million UK sick days (ONS, 2021).

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Other viruses which can also cause symptoms akin to a common cold include respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), adenovirus and some forms of influenza virus infection. However, for many individuals, as we transition back into a more sociable society, rhinovirus will be one of the first to send them running to the medicine cabinet in order to control their symptoms.

Because there are over 160 different types of rhinovirus, it is an extremely difficult proposition to develop an effective vaccine that will target the vast majority. In addition, while synthetic antiviral drugs are currently being worked on by researchers all over the world, the sheer diversity of rhinoviruses also presents a challenge. In most cases, we all recover from a cold after a few days of rest, but we wanted to find out if there was a way to make this recovery more efficient.

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Our approach for the past few years has been to look at solving this problem via harnessing the power of the human innate immune system, which is our frontline defence against rhinoviruses. In our group, we research the activities of tiny immune molecules called peptides, which are produced by cells when we get an infection. These peptides can damage invading viruses and bacteria very efficiently and effectively. We have shown that one such peptide, called a cathelicidin, was very effective at destroying rhinovirus in cell models in the laboratory.

We decided it would be a great idea to see if we could look at ways to stimulate immune cells to produce more of these antiviral peptides, with a view to using this approach to combat rhinovirus. Fortunately, we found that this “stimulation” approach worked really well in making immune cells release antiviral peptides, and in laboratory tests, these peptides substantially reduced the amount of viable rhinovirus.

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Made in Scotland, patent pending with Proof of Concept demonstrated against rhinovirus, PlusPEP aims to be Scotland’s first immune boosting supplement pill that is specifically targeted towards enhancing the production of immune molecules, that we know are highly efficient at disrupting rhinovirus.

Exported globally, selling direct online or through pharmacies and other retailers, a future spinout of Edinburgh Napier, PlusPEP Ltd, aims to secure first revenues within the $29Bn global immune health supplements market within the next 12 months.

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While prevention is always the best approach in terms of dealing with viral infections, we believe that using the body’s natural defences to fight off rhinovirus can be incredibly effective. We are so excited to be putting PlusPep into the hands of consumers as quickly as possible, and hope that it finds a place in every bathroom cabinet as a trusted way to enhance the body’s innate immune response against rhinovirus.

Professor Peter Barlow, Chair of Immunology and Infection, Edinburgh Napier University, Dr Craig Stevens and Robert Goodfellow



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