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Drug design expert sets his group's sights on SARS

Three days after the genome for the virus that causes SARS was released, biologists at The Johns Hopkins University identified a protein made by the virus that may provide a good target for drug development. Work is currently under way to produce the protein in recombinant form in sufficient amounts for drug design studies to begin.

The researchers found a protease, a protein essential to viral reproduction, encoded in the genome of the SARS virus, one of a class of viruses known as coronaviruses. Proteases usually act as a kind of scissors, cutting viral proteins into their active forms and enabling new viral particles to form and infect other cells. Several existing HIV treatments and other HIV treatments in development work by inhibiting the activity of HIV proteases.

"Not all viral proteases are the same. They have different structures and mechanisms of action," cautions Ernesto Freire, Henry Walters Professor of Biology in the university's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "It is necessary to characterize very precisely the SARS-associated coronavirus protease to validate its value as a drug development target."

"This basic characterization is necessary because the SARS-associated coronavirus protease belongs to a different family of proteases than the [proteases] from HIV, hepatitis C or herpes viruses, which have been vigorously studied and validated as targets for drug development," Freire notes.

Freire is delighted that he and other scientists are already homing in on potential SARS vulnerabilities a mere six months after the disease first appeared in humans in the Guangdong province of China.

"It's been like a great detective novel, this race to find and stop the culprit behind this new disease," Freire says. "It's amazing how quickly we've made progress, from no one working on it two to three months ago, to having the bug identified and having its genome sequenced. This is the first epidemic of the 21st century,
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Contact: Michael Purdy
mcp@jhu.edu
410-516-7160
Johns Hopkins University
28-May-2003


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