MERS is in the U.S., but Buffalo doctors may defeat it

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The first U.S. case of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, was confirmed last week and has sparked a lot of questions over how concerned Americans should be about the virus.

MERS is called a coronavirus because of the spiky proteins that surround it sort of like a crown – or corona. The SARS virus is also a coronavirus.

During the SARS outbreak a few years ago, scientists at the Hauptman-Woodward Institute in Buffalo began examining the structure of the virus. They used the special capabilities of the lab to make crystals of a tiny piece of SARS protein.

Dr. Wayne Schultz said, “We studied it in the crystal. We found its structure, we determined what component was necessary for the virus to form that structure and how to disrupt it.”

Dr. Tim Umland added, “It’s an essential protein in SARS. If this protein doesn’t exist in SARS, the virus doesn’t live; it cannot replicate.”

Doctors caused a mutation that produced a slightly altered form of the protein.

“If I zoom in a bit, you’ll see that the red molecule here, the mutant, is not perfectly aligned with the green one,” Dr. Umland said while showing a display.

That may not seem like a big change, but with that minor alteration, the virus can’t replicate, and Dr. Umland says that kills the virus.

Now doctors in Buffalo are again on the forefront and working to discover the key to defeating MERS, which they say has the same vulnerable zone as SARS.

Dr. Umland said, “They’re almost identical in the two viruses, and so what we can do to SARS, I think, will be applicable to MERS. It’s a potential for a broad spectrum antiviral against coronaviruses.”

Coronaviruses also cause about one-third of all common colds, so a drug that stops those viruses would have a tremendous impact.

It won’t happen anytime soon, but it will be a result of this research.

So far, there have been very few human-to-human transmissions of MERS, and apparently only in close contact. Though the virus may mutate and spread more widely, so far it hasn’t.

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