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New insight into SARS

5th February 2008

Researchers in Beijing have identified the route used by the SARS virus to enter host cells, a development which may point the way to future treatments for the disease.

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Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome infected more than 8,000 people globally, killing 774, before subsiding in mid-2003.

Jiang Chengyu and colleagues at the Peking Union Medical College now say they have identified the exact pathway the virus takes into cells.

They report in the journal Cell Research that it makes use of a process known as endocytosis, in which the cell membrane folds inwards and engulfs substances, taking them in.

The virus had previously been thought to enter cells through membrane fusion, a process in which the virus binds to receptors on the surface of the cell and then imports its genetic material into the cell.

Jiang's study found the specific endocytic pathway used by SARS, paving the way for possible future drug development which could target the viral invasion process.

The team monitored the movement of the receptor that recognises SARS, from the cell membrane to inside the cell. They then used different drugs to block the functions of known cell entry pathways to determine which route the virus took.

Jiang said previous studies had shown possible endocytic pathways, while this study had now shown for sure which route the virus takes.

The team found that SARS does not rely on conventional endocytic pathways to enter cells, but makes use of 'lipid rafts', a section of the cell membrane that is enriched with cholesterol.

These 'rafts' could be a potential future target for SARS treatments because they could be used to block the virus from entering host cells.

Experts said further studies were needed to establish whether this was the only possible route used by SARS to enter cells.

According to Liao Kan, a senior scientist from the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, if the virus has two choices of entry point, it might simply switch to the other if one of its 'doors' were closed.

 

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