"By unlocking the three-dimensional structure of this enzyme -- known as papain-like-protease (PLpro) -- we now have a molecular road map to design new drugs that could potentially treat SARS-infected patients, or perhaps patients suffering from other SARS-related illnesses such as the common cold, bronchitis or pneumonia," said Andrew Mesecar, associate professor of pharmaceutical biotechnology in the UIC College of Pharmacy. "We are attempting to use the same approach that has been accomplished in designing effective drugs against HIV protease, which has led to the development of new drugs to fight the AIDS virus."
The research is published in the March 27 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Mesecar said that the knowledge gained from this new atomic structure -- the first-ever reported on this class of proteases -- has the potential to go beyond the treatment of patients infected with the coronavirus that causes SARS.
Coronaviruses, which produce upper respiratory tract infections, were discovered in the late 1960s. The viruses are responsible for 10 percent to 30 percent of all common colds. Recently, two new coronaviruses -- NL63 and HKU1 -- were found to cause many cases of severe pneumonia in children and the elderly throughout the world, he said.
"NL63 and HKU1 infections are severe and often lead to hospitalization," Mesecar said. "It is believed these viruses have been around a long time, but only recently have we developed the technology to identify and detect them. The SARS outbreak and quick response of the scientific community has led to the rapid development of such technology."