Scientists Identify SARS' 'Secret Weapon'

Viral protein sabotages the immune defenses of infected cells

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TUESDAY, Aug. 8, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists say they've identified a "secret weapon" that the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) virus uses to disrupt the immune defenses of infected cells.

Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that the virus uses a protein called nsp1 to breakdown biochemical messages that normally trigger the production of a protein that helps cells defend against the virus.

The finding, which could help in the development of a vaccine against SARS, was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"The SARS nsp1 protein degrades the messenger RNA instructions sent from DNA to make interferon beta, which is crucial to host immunity," study senior author Shinji Makino, professor of microbiology and immunology, said in a prepared statement.

"This is a very rare phenomenon, and it raises a lot of questions -- among them, whether we can make a mutant form of SARS coronavirus that lacks the ability to degrade messenger RNA, which could ultimately lead to the creation of a live attenuated vaccine for SARS," Makino said.

A SARS outbreak that began in China in 2003 killed about 916 people in Asia, Europe, and North and South America.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about SARS.

SOURCE: University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, news release, Aug. 7, 2006

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