SCIENTISTS in Singapore believe they have uncovered the inner workings of the SARS virus, which will help them develop drugs to fight the next wave of attacks.
A year of hard work by 10 researchers from the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology here has culminated in what could be the world’s first scientific work uncovering two unique proteins within the virus. These proteins are believed to be responsible for producing the nasty results, such as severe lung damage, in people who get SARS.
Though it belongs to the same family – coronaviruses – as the common cold, the SARS virus is far deadlier.
The proteins U274 and U122 have not been found in any other coronavirus and may explain why SARS is so virulent, say the scientists.
People become very ill very quickly from SARS and little was known of how the virus caused the symptoms.
Discovery of these proteins is “like identifying the heart, lungs and other organs that are essential in helping the human body to work,” said the institute’s deputy director Prof Hong Wanjin, who co-ordinates SARS research there. Large amounts of U274 genetic material have been found inside infected cells, leading researchers to believe it plays a big role in SARS infection.
By killing its victims, SARS also snuffs out its own existence. So it is thought that the virus must have made the leap from animals to humans only recently – so recently that it has not had time to evolve to become less virulent and thus more likely to survive in humans and keep the chain of infection going.
Researchers are fighting back on at least three levels. They have developed diagnostic kits to confirm the disease quickly in infected people and are developing non-toxic versions of the virus which can be used as vaccines.
China appears to be leading efforts on the vaccine front, with reportedly the first tests of SARS vaccines on human volunteers recently.
Assoc Prof Kong Hwai Loong, executive director of the Biomedical Research Council of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, said although SARS was under control for now, the worry was that it could return.
“We should harness all the new knowledge we are able to gain from scientific research and clinical experience so that we are better informed and prepared if we ever have to face such a virulent, lethal disease as SARS again.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network
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